When Peter Dutton was asked this week how it was that Fazel Chegeni, a traumatised and stateless refugee, came to be detained with some of the country’s “most hardened criminals” (his words) on Christmas Island, he wasn’t the least bit fazed.
It wasn’t just criminal convictions that were considered when deciding to incarcerate someone in the island’s detention centre, he said. A whole range of other factors, “some of which will be publicly available, others of which won’t be”, were taken into account.
“It will go to the threat that they pose to detention centre staff, or threats they might have made against the staff or, indeed, actions within the centre against other detainees – all that forms the risk profile that is determined by the Australian Border Force.”
Dutton had no comment to make about the case of Chegeni, which will be examined in due course by a coroner, but his message was clear: the stateless Faili Kurd had been consigned to Christmas Island for very good reasons.
The only problem with this “trust me, we know what we’re doing” response is that it sits very uncomfortably with the sad, sad story of Chegeni, whose death over the weekend after he escaped from the centre has left many of those who came into contact with him grief-stricken.
“I feel devastated,” said Katie Penley, a volunteer yoga teacher at the Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation, who came to know Chegeni this year when he began attending her classes.
“I cannot understand how it came to be. This is a man who was beautiful and gentle and offered so much, only to be ripped down and disposed of. That’s how I feel.”
Chegeni’s death was a catalyst for the riots that resulted in a damage bill of more than $10 million and strained relations across the Tasman, but it is his back story that raises a host of questions about a detention network where notions of punishment and deterrent are paramount and secrecy rules.
Of more than a dozen deaths of asylum seekers in mainland and offshore detention centres and in the community in recent years, including the brutal killing of Reza Barati, a case can be made that Chegeni’s is the most troubling.
Why? Because his incarceration in centres across the detention network spanned four years (and five immigration ministers from Labor and Coalition governments) and defied repeated advice that this was the last place he should be.
In recent days, Fairfax Media has read several emphatic recommendations that Chegeni be removed from the detention environment, beginning in March 2012 and continuing until before his transfer to Christmas Island in September. All went largely unheeded.
One of the first came within six months of his arrival. It noted the “documented clinical evidence” suggesting his mental health had deteriorated since his detention in Australia and warned that “these symptoms will persist and may worsen if his detention in a restrictive environment continues”.
Three months later, in June 2012, a health professional observed: “He has pretty much exhausted his capacity to cope in the detention environment, and is likely to experience a continuing deterioration in his mental health if maintained in this very restrictive detention environment.”
Chegeni was 30 when he arrived at Christmas Island on October 23, 2011, having left Tehran International Airport on a fake passport and flown to Indonesia before boarding a boat to Australia.
His harrowing account of life in Iran was described as “convincing” by the Australian official who granted him refugee status in March 2012. The decision concluded his family story was “entirely consistent with current country information regarding stateless Faili Kurds in Iran” and that his fear of persecution if return to Iran was “well-founded”.
He came from a very poor family and had moved from their village as a 12 or 13-year-old to Tehran to try and find work to support his parents and siblings.
In his early 20s he had been attacked at a family wedding and left badly scarred by stab wounds because, as an “undocumented individual” in Iran, he could not receive medical treatment at a hospital (or attend school or be legally employed) and had to be stitched up by a family member.
The ugly scars and two tattoos attracted the attention of Iranian authorities two or three years later. He was arrested and spent around 40 days in the notorious Khrizan Prison, where two men subjected him to degrading horrors before he was released and left for dead in the desert.
In his protection application he told how he felt so shamed by the abuse that he shut himself off from friends and family. “Anytime I saw authorities, I would retreat in fear. I could not function properly. It still haunts me now.”
Two months after his arrival, and more than two months before he was granted refugee status, Chegeni was involved in an incident at the Curtin Detention Centre that would destroy his hopes for a new beginning in Australia, along with three other asylum seekers, though none were charged with an offence until January of 2013.
The fracas was apparently the result of a dispute between Afghan and Iranian asylum seekers over access to the limited number of phones in the Curtin Detention Centre.
The four were convicted of assault and given six-month jail terms by a magistrate who has since resigned after being found to have breached procedural fairness in another case.
No charges were laid over a subsequent attack on Chegeni that was not captured on CCTV footage and left him with a broken nose and a back injury. Fearing retribution, he declined to lay charges.
On appeal, WA Supreme Court commissioner Kevin Sleight found the sentences were “manifestly excessive”, but upheld the convictions, placing the four on good behaviour bonds.
“The attack lasted for a very short time, about one minute,” he said. “The victim was not seriously injured and made a full recovery from his injuries. No property was damaged. No staff were attacked. Order was quickly restored. Each of the appellants has no prior convictions and is of good character.”
But, because the convictions were upheld, the damage to the four’s chances of freedom was done.
“He was a very unwell young man,” says one health professional who came into contact with him. “He never came across as someone who would instigate any violence against any one else.
“He was very fearful, to be honest. He was more afraid of being hurt than anything else and of getting into trouble because he couldn’t understand why he remained in detention when he hadn’t done anything and he had been found to be a refugee.”
At the MITA, Chegeni made one of several suicide attempts in detention, jumping off the roof of the building. He was not badly injured, and told refugee advocate Pamela Curr: “God does not want me to die, so I must try to live.”
In conversation with others, he told how he worried about his parents still in Iran and seemed perplexed at his own situation. “I thought it was only in Iran that injustices were done,” he said.
He also told how, having always been atheist, he had embraced Christianity in detention and developed a capacity to connect with God through meditation.
For several months, he was released into community detention and appeared to be making solid progress, riding his bike around the northern suburbs and walking his friend’s dog.
A case worker’s report noted that, while there had been several incidents in detention, most of them involving self-harm, there had been no incident while he was living in the community.
The worker’s recommendation that he should remain in the community was confirmed in the final report of his torture and trauma counsellor, who wrote: “Fazel’s health is likely to deteriorate further if he remains in a detention environment which he experiences as very punitive.”
But this short burst of relative freedom ended in December of 2013, when then immigration minister Scott Morrison revoked his community detention on the grounds that he had been charged with a criminal offence.
This, according to those he confided in, only confirmed his feelings of hopelessness. His sense of injustice gnawed at him, and was propelled by the knowledge that those who had attacked him were now free and making a fresh start in their new country.
Then came his transfer to Brisbane where he made a big impression on Katie Penley, helping her communicate in yoga classes with those whose English was worse than his. “At the end of the first class he stayed back and wanted to talk about the spiritual side of yoga and meditation and a friendship developed from that,” she recalls.
The news that his sister had died in Iran then propelled the onset of depression and several acts of self-harm that prompted his transfer to Darwin and, apparently, to Christmas Island in September.
Friends remarked how he stopped eating and communicating and retreated deep inside himself. When refugee advocate Geoff McKeich expressed alarm that Chegeni had been transferred to Christmas Island, he was told the transfer “was due to departmental operational requirement and to ensure capacity is maintained at mainland detention centres”.
McKeich was unimpressed. “Should Fazel not be released into community detention the department must take responsibility for any further deterioration in Fazel’s health and mental state,” he wrote to the department on September 25.
A case worker later told McKeich that Chegeni wanted McKeich to remain his authorised contact on his application for a temporary protection visa, but did not want any direct contact. “If I was to guess – and it is purely a guess – I would say he doesn’t have the mental energy to engage in visa/legal discussions,” he wrote in an email on October 27.
“Even yesterday he was not overly interested in receiving too much information,” the email continued, explaining that Chegeni listened to the broad concepts of his visa options “but did not appear to want to hear the finer details”.
One of those in detention on Christmas Island who was housed in the same compound as Chegeni made the same observation when he spoke to Fairfax Media during the riot that followed Chegeni’s death.
The detainee, who is awaiting news on whether his visa will be restored said Chegeni, who was more than six feet tall, said very little and ate even less, assessing he weighed less than 50 kilograms. He could not fathom how Chegeni mustered the energy to scale the fence.
Speaking before detainees lost their access to mobile phones, the detainee later told his migration agent, Marion Le: “Everything that could be destroyed has been. The death of the Iranian man sparked it. It was basically because everyone was so concerned over the treatment he didn’t get.”
While the focus since has been on the behaviour of those who escalated a peaceful protest into a violent riot, and the conditions facing those detainees who were not involved, Chegeni’s passing has been marked by solemn gatherings across the country and on Manus Island.
At a multi-faith commemoration at the MITA on Thursday, one detainee found something positive to say: “Fazel is free now. God gave him a visa.”