For a man who was stateless, who lived his life belonging to nowhere, the foothills of Kabir Kuh, the great mountain of western Iran, are as close as anywhere Fazel Chegeni knew to home.
Now, he is, finally, home.
Flown from Australia last week, the body of the refugee who died in November on Christmas Island has been returned to his family in Ilam province in western Iran. Chegeni was buried on Saturday in the soil of the country where he grew up.
He was laid to rest just a valley or so away from Reza Barati, a man he never met, but another who died in Australian immigration detention. But whereas Barati died a sudden violent death, in the madness of one night of harrowing violence, Chegeni was killed slowly by the machinery of detention itself.
His death was the inexorable crushing of a man trapped in a bureaucracy that did not, and could not, care for him.
Guardian Australia has obtained more than 700 pages of Chegeni’s immigration department file, and has spoken to more than a dozen people who knew him, inside the detention system and out. The documents detail Chegeni’s brutal torture, including rape, at the hands of the Iranian regime, the alarming deterioration on his mental health in detention, and the repeated requests for intervention from health professionals that were not acted upon.
The testimony of those who knew him say they saw a man’s will steadily eroded by an incarceration he couldn’t see a way out of, a detention that was potentially indefinite.
Chegeni’s wretched existence in Australia’s detention regime exposes the inefficiency and incompetency of a system that was legally obliged to look after him, but utterly failed to do so.
His fate was entirely predictable to those who knew him, and knew his history. Over four years, scores of people within Australia’s immigration department pleaded on Chegeni’s behalf for him to be helped.
His bulging departmental file shows that on at least a dozen occasions, immigration department officers suggested, requested, and finally pleaded, for senior management to intervene in the case of a man clearly headed for catastrophe.
Throughout Chegeni’s file, case managers, psychologists, detention centre operators, and immigration officers consistently warn that his mental health is being harmed by his ongoing detention, highlighting his history of torture and trauma in Iran and his repeated suicide attempts, and stating he should be released from detention.
But the rigid brutality of Australia’s migration act, and the bureaucratic inflexibility of Australia’s detention regime meant he faced, potentially, a lifetime of incarceration.
They were, again, quelled – they are near enough to an annual occurrence now – and life in detention resumed.
But one life wasn’t resumed, and those who knew Chegeni have been left asking: “Why could no one do anything?”
A life on the margins
Chegeni, whose full name was Fazel Chegeni Najad , was a Faili Kurd, born in Ilam province, in western Iran in 1981. When he was 14, his family moved to the capital, Tehran, seeking a more prosperous future, including work for their teenage son.
But Tehran held little promise. Chegeni’s was always a life on the margins. As a Faili Kurd, Chegeni was not recognised as an Iranian citizen: the regime regarded the Faili as Iraqis who were expelled, as Chegeni’s parents were, by Saddam Hussein in the early 1980s. In the decades since, there has been some slow repatriation, but many Faili remain caught, unpeople welcome nowhere.
Chegeni had never been to Iraq, had never left Iran, but in Iran his status as Faili meant he never went to school. He could never visit a hospital, obtain a licence, or vote.
Invisible, he worked odd jobs in the informal, black economy. The work was perilous, and his labour exploitable. There was no one to whom could he complain when he was ripped off. He drifted between jobs and was often unemployed.
Then he was arrested.
In interviews months later with Australian immigration department officers, Chegeni would recall in brutal detail the particular tortures inflicted upon him.
In 2004, at a relative’s wedding, a fight had broken out over a previous marriage, and Chegeni, trying to intervene to stop the groom being beaten, was attacked with knives, and cut deeply. Without identity documents, he had no right to visit a hospital, so a relative stitched his wounds, leaving him with long jagged scars across his body.
Two years later, during a raid on his village, his scars attracted the attention of the Sepah, Iran’s feared paramilitary intelligence agency, who suspected he was a troublemaker. He was taken to Khirzan prison, where he was held for 40 days.
“There were two men, Hussaini and Mosavi,” Chegeni would tell Australian immigration officials through an interpreter, “and their role was to torture me.”
“They would undress me completely and force me to clean around the toilet with my tongue. They would then spit on batons and rape us with them. They would say that I was here to die.
“I was fed 50 grams of potato and one slice of bread each meal. I had lost so much weight that I became skeletal. As they believed that I was dying, they released me into the desert.”
But Chegeni found his way back to Tehran. His family didn’t recognise him when he finally arrived home, so much weight had he lost. More than six feet tall, he weighed less than 50 kilograms.
Chegeni was now on the radar of authorities. Over the following years, he was hauled in again and again, questioned over and over, before finally, he decided to leave.
In February 2011, Chegeni paid for a fake passport and a ticket on a flight to Dubai. From there he flew to Indonesia. Eight months later, after negotiations with a smuggler and paying him $11,000 of borrowed money, Chegeni had a place on a boat bound for Australia.
He arrived on Christmas Island on 23 October 2011.
The Australian government is comprehensively aware of the systemic persecution faced by the Faili Kurdish ethnic minority in Iran’s Kurdish communities. “[They] face discrimination in housing, education, freedom of expression and religion, health and employment,” Chegeni’s departmental file says.
“The government restricts cultural and political activities, including the organisation that focus on social issues. The provinces where they live are the poorest in the country … cases of excessive child malnutrition and extreme poverty have also been recorded in these areas.”
Chegeni also told the immigration department of the broad discrimination Faili Kurds suffer in Iran.
“Due to the fact I am a stateless Faili Kurd,” he said. “I have been continually discriminated against and persecuted in Iran. I was unable to obtain even limited schooling. Without education it has been difficult for me to subsist in Iran. I have also had issues with employment. I am illiterate and I am ashamed of that.”
The persecution would be worse, he said, if he were sent back. The act of claiming asylum in the west meant the authorities “would consider me a spy”.
Asked by his interviewers what would happen if he went back to Iran, Chegeni told them: “if I was forced to return, I would be severely harmed, if not killed”.
In March 2012, Australia’s immigration authorities found Chegeni’s account was consistent throughout several interviews and that he was a “credible witness”.
A departmental officer found he was “stateless”, and had a “well-founded fear of persecution” in Iran. He was “someone to whom Australia owes protection obligations”.
The minute that changed Chegeni’s life
Chegeni was on a “positive pathway”, in the parlance of the immigration department. He would be granted a visa and allowed to live in Australia.
However, four months before that, in the Curtin detention centre in Western Australia, one solitary minute had transpired that was to change the direction of Chegeni’s life.
Video exists of that lone, landmark minute.
Security camera footage from Curtin immigration detention centre on 22 December 2011 shows Chegeni seated, wearing a black singlet, as he eats in a mess hall.
From a doorway, another asylum seeker approaches him, standing aggressively over him as he speaks to him. Reportedly the man had earlier been in disagreement with other asylum seekers, not Chegeni, over access to phones. But the man leans over the seated Chegeni, speaking at him.
Chegeni responds physically, pushing his hand into the man’s face. The man breaks a plate on Chegeni, knocking him to the ground, and a fight erupts, drawing in several detainees on both sides.
The CCTV footage shows the fight ranging across the dining hall and into a doorway. One man throws a chair and Chegeni appears to kick another on the ground.
Guards are seen standing back, allowing the fight to dissipate, and the disturbance subsides as quickly as it erupted.
As the Western Australia supreme court commissioner Kevin Sleight would later comment: “The attack lasted for a very short time, about one minute. The victim was not seriously injured and has made a full recovery from his injuries. No property was damaged. No staff were attacked. Order was quickly restored.”
But that minute would follow Chegeni the rest of his life. He was charged, along with four others with assault.
The fight occurred in December 2011. Four months later, in March 2012, Chegeni was formally found to be a refugee.
However, he would stay in detention nearly a year more, his mental health deteriorating rapidly.
On 7 March 2012, detention medical provider IHMS assessed Chegeni and found incarceration was exacerbating his “history of torture and trauma”. Chegeni’s days in immigration detention, its uncertainties and its caprice, were all too painful reminders of his time in prison in Iran.
“Documented clinical evidence suggests that there has been deterioration in Fazel’s mental health since being detained. Clinicians involved in this case suggest that Fazel is transferred from his current plane of detention to a less restrictive environment … as soon as possible.”
He was not moved.
In June 2012, frustrated at delays in his visa process, he was found with razor blades threatening to stab himself if he wasn’t moved to to another country.
An IHMS medical officer again asked, in a formal assessment, that he be released: “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. In my opinion this man has a strong case for priority processing on grounds of both mental health and his experience of torture and trauma.”
But Chegeni remained detained, and in August, his file reports, he repeatedly banged his head against a wall in an act of self-harm.
Three days later attempted to hang himself using clothes and the limb of a tree. He was rescued.
In October 2012, Chegeni was again assessed, this time by a psychologist from Foundation House.
“Fazel is very unwell psychologically … he remains a suicide risk. Fazel’s mental state is likely to deteriorate further if he remains in a detention centre environment which he experiences as very punitive.”
Finally, on 8 April 2013, after 534 days in detention, Fazel Chegeni was released, and granted a visa to live in Australia.
He settled in Millgrove Avenue, Thomastown, in Melbourne’s north, where he lived with a fellow asylum seeker, attending English lessons, and daily walking a dog the pair shared.
Quiet, and shy about his imperfect English, he had only a small network of friends. But slowly, steadily, he built a life in his new country.
“He blossomed,” in the words of one friend. “That’s when he was allowed to flourish.”
Others who knew him, inside and out of detention, have described Chegeni as a “gentle soul … not traditionally religious, but a deeply spiritual man”. They say he was “generous, kind and deeply humble”.
He owned few possessions in Australia. He had two sets of clothes; each day he wore one while he washed the other. He carried with him a book on Zen meditation called Peace Is Every Step.
One friend who knew Chegeni in Australia told Guardian Australia: “Some people, after they lose everything, try desperately to regather everything they’ve lost. Others realise they can never replace what’s gone and they learn to live with what’s important. That was Fazel.”
“He didn’t want luxury,” another friend said. “He didn’t want [welfare] payments. He just wanted to live.”
But that mad minute in the Curtin detention centre still loomed, a Sword of Damocles over Chegeni’s head.
Trapped by punitive immigration law
In December 2013, Chegeni and three others faced Perth magistrates court over the 2011 assault.
On day two of the trial, they were advised by legal counsel to plead guilty, and agreed.
Magistrate Barbara Lane convicted Chegeni of assault occasioning bodily harm and sentenced him to six months and one day in prison.
On December 18, Chegeni was granted leave to appeal his sentence. On the same day, the then immigration minister Scott Morrison revoked his right to live in the community and he was taken back into detention again.
In the submission before the minister, IHMS warned it “could not rule out [Chegeni’s] mental health issues not being exacerbated by a return to held detention given his mental health history”.
But Chegeni’s criminal charge outweighed those concerns, and he was taken into custody in “the public interest”. He had lived for 255 days in Australia. He would never know another day of freedom.
When Chegeni’s appeal against his sentence came before the West Australian supreme court two months later, his prison sentence was thrown out entirely.
Sleight found the sentence was “manifestly excessive”, and had failed to consider that the victim was not seriously injured and that none of the offenders had any prior convictions. Chegeni was, instead, given a good behaviour bond.
However, while the sentence was dropped, Chegeni’s conviction still stood.
And it was this legalistic distinction that meant he was now trapped by the inflexibility of Australia’s byzantine migration laws.
The now-notorious Section 501 of the Migration Act has an especially punitive clause for people in immigration detention.
It states the minister must cancel the visa of a person who fails the “character test” because of a conviction for any offence committed in immigration detention.
There is no discretion permitted, no consideration of the seriousness of the offence, or of any mitigating circumstances.
Chegeni was caught: stranded in a detention that was potentially limitless, and that he could not challenge.
Despite the fact a court had found he should face not custodial sentence for his part in the 2011 affray, Chegeni faced indefinite detention because of it.
He could not be removed from Australia because he was a refugee, and Australia was legally obliged to protect him. Besides, he was stateless, and there was nowhere to where he could be sent. But, because of Australia’s punitive and inflexible migration laws, he had to be detained.
Chegeni faced no prospect of release without a specific ministerial intervention in his case. Within the department, progress on these was painfully slow, to the point of stagnation.
As one department staffer complained in an email, asking about the progress of Chegeni’s case: “Some recent [visa application] bar lift submissions that have gone to the minister did not end up getting signed. For this reason, we have put these types of submissions on hold while we clarify with the minister’s office how we should be proceed with these types of cases.”
In January 2014, the immigration department accidentally leaked Chegeni’s personal details online – along with those of nearly 10,000 others in immigration detention – in a massive and embarrassing data breach uncovered by Guardian Australia.
The secretary of the department wrote a letter to Chegeni apologising.
Throughout 2014, Chegeni’s mental health dramatically worsened. His case notes show a series of increasingly concerned case managers and psychologists begging for senior managers to intervene in his case.
In an August case review, it was noted: “Case manager is of the view that [Chegeni] should be accommodated in the community while awaiting the resolution of his case.”
A month later, a submission from departmental staff to then minister Morrison argued that the ongoing, indefinite detention of Chegeni, along with that of nine others in similar situations, had been found by the Australian Human Rights Commission to be unlawful under international law: a breach of Australia’s obligations under the international covenant on civil and political rights.
The submission recommended: “Due to the length of time these 10 detainees have spent in held immigration detention, and the finding that they are person to whom Australia has refugee convention … non-refoulement obligations, you may consider it appropriate to exercise your power … to place them into community detention.
“If placed into community detention, the department would continue to manage all 10 detainees’ cases closely. International Health and Medical Services would manage their health needs and an external service provider would manage their welfare.”
Morrison rejected the submission, and declined to intervene.
The refugees stayed in detention.
Two months later, on 14 November, Chegeni’s case manager wrote again: “He appears to be at breaking point and I am quite concerned about him from his presentation … please … keep an eye on him in the meantime.”
Another departmental officer wrote on the same day: “He faces further extended periods in detention. He has controlled himself remarkably well under the circumstances and has been a pleasure to have at the [Melbourne immigration detention centre] since his return. He asks for nothing but peace.”
Four days later, Chegeni’s case manager wrote that Chegeni felt he was being bullied by other detainees.
“This bullying has been going on for some time now and it is difficult for Serco to control. Fazel is becoming more withdrawn and he no longer feels confident or comfortable to walk around the centre. He has been of excellent behaviour … and although it would obviously be preferable to … stop the bullying rather than move the victim, Fazel has advised that he cannot take the situation any longer and needs to move. For his ongoing mental health I support the move and hope something can be arranged ASAP.”
And on November 20, Chegeni’s case manager wrote again that his presentation was “erratic”, his train of thought illogical and and his sentences unintelligible. The email mentioned his “history of self-harm”.
The next day he wrote yet again: “Fazel’s mental health has worsened.”
Another officer raised similar concerns:
“He is obviously becoming very exhausted by the prolonged period of detention and I would support a new place for him, this may help improve his mental well-being.” Also mentioned was Chegeni’s “past history of attempted hanging”.
Three days later, on 24 November, Chegeni’s case was reviewed yet again.
“Case management strongly supports him being reconsidered for community detention/bridging visa as soon as his circumstances allow given his length of time in detention, his positive refugee status and his deteriorating mental health.”
“Overall, [Chegeni’s] behaviour has improved significantly. No incidents of relevance have been recorded since March 2014. Case Management stated that [Chegeni] has been of ‘exceptional behaviour’ since arriving at the [Melbourne detention centre] and is always polite and courteous.”
In the margins of the paper, another senior officer has scrawled in block letters: “Can we discuss with case management re: possible return to community detention in the new year? (or bridging visa, or temporary protection visa)”.
Those in the department alerted to Chegeni’s case were desperate, it seems, but powerless to help him.
Still Chegeni remained in detention.
Case notes say he withdrew from classes and activities in detention, and refused to speak with officers. When forced to speak, he was confrontational and overtly aggressive.
In March this year, one of the men who came on the same boat with Chegeni to Australia died.
Omid Ali Avaz, a 29-year-old living in Brisbane on a bridging visa, committed suicide in his home – “died of unnatural causes” according to internal department emails.
Chegeni, by now in detention in Brisbane, formally requested to go to his friend’s funeral, and his case manager recommended he be allowed to attend.
By email, senior department staff rejected his request.
Then news reached Chegeni from Iran. His, sister, too, had died.
Chegeni appeared to grow increasingly desperate in detention.
Throughout his incarceration, Chegeni’s file is littered with client request forms, with his increasingly manic handwritten pleas scrawled across the page.
“Can I see may cais mangeir pleas. Tank you”, is a typical note.
His signature is scratched into the paper below each request.
Chegeni was now deeply psychotic, according to case notes. He threatened to kill himself and was judged “non-compliant” and was moved to a higher-security centre in Wickham Point in Darwin.
There, he threatened to jump off a roof. He was moved again, this time to Christmas Island, the place in Australia where he had first arrived, nearly four tortuous years earlier.
Chegeni’s file is silent on his final weeks and days, but friends on the island report a deep malaise.
“We knew he was sick. He was a sick man,” one fellow detainee said. “Everything hurt him, everything made him upset. But no help, only punish. Why could no one do anything?”
The vicissitudes of detention wore at Chegeni, enlivening hopes before cruelling them again. While being held in Darwin, before being taken to Christmas Island, Chegeni was sent a letter inviting him to apply for a temporary protection visa to live in Australia.
But even this sliver of promise carried disappointment.
Shortly before he went missing on Christmas Island, friends in detention say Chegeni received another letter from the department. His application had stalled; it was not valid because of a form incorrectly filled out. He would need to resubmit it and start again.
“He was just tired of it,” another friend on Christmas Island told other detainees in the days after Chegeni disappeared, somehow, over the detention centre’s high steel fences. At that time, there was hope still he might be found alive.
Chegeni went missing from the detention centre some time late on Friday, 6 November.
It’s unclear how he escaped or what motivated him to leave the detention centre for the tiny island around it, known for its dense jungle and dangerous cliffs, and from which he had no way to escape.
Friends have reported that he had told them he simply couldn’t bear detention any longer and wanted “to go outside”.
His body was found early on the Sunday. Detainees say they were told only his body was found “in the jungle” and that he had been dead “for some time”. A coronial inquest, perhaps years away, will formally determine his cause of death.
In death, Chegeni was all alone. On a foreign speck of land, in a country he came to seeking a freedom he never found.
At the Melbourne detention centre where he had been held, his friends held a memorial vigil.
“Fazel is free now,” one wrote. “God gave him a visa.