Asylum-seekers continued to be subjected to mandatory detention. Children, in particular Aboriginal children, were arrested and detained in circumstances amounting in some cases to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Prisoners were ill-treated and at least 92 deaths in custody or during police operations were reported.

The Liberal-National Party coalition of Prime Minister John Howard was re-elected in October. The issue of social and economic equality for Aborigines and Australians in rural areas dominated much of public and parliamentary debate. The government, the opposition and community groups campaigned against a new political party, One Nation, which attacked the UN human rights system, immigration from Asia and policies to address Aboriginal disadvantage.

In September the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination asked the government to explain how its policies and a new law restricting Aboriginal rights were compatible with Australia's obligations under international human rights treaties.

After the Prime Minister threatened to dissolve both houses of parliament for twice rejecting controversial legislation on Aboriginal traditional rights, parliament passed a compromise law in July. The law seeks to secure the economic interests of farmers and miners by limiting Aboriginal rights to negotiate their traditional use of government land.

In June parliament repealed electoral legislation which had led to the imprisonment of a prisoner of conscience during previous federal elections (see Amnesty International Report 1997).

In September a parliamentary committee reported that children, particularly Aboriginal children, were arbitrarily detained under mandatory sentencing laws which prevented courts from taking into account a child's age, personal circumstances and the severity of the offence, in violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The report's recommendations included the creation of a national Office for Children and a review of laws "to ensure that children and young people cannot receive longer [prison] sentences than adults for any particular offence". Few steps had been taken to implement these recommendations by the end of the year. Official studies indicated that race appeared to be a determining factor in the imprisonment or sentencing of juveniles. In May a report by the Judicial Commission of New South Wales found that Aboriginal and Pacific Islander children were much more frequently sentenced to imprisonment or harsh penalties than comparable white offenders.

In May the national Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) published a report on the mandatory detention of people who arrived in the country without proper travel documents, including asylum-seekers. HREOC found that extended detention violated international human rights standards (see Amnesty International Report 1998). The government dismissed the report's main findings and reportedly accused the Human Rights Commissioner of "refusing to reflect the government's legal advice" on its international human rights obligations. The government stated that problems were being addressed through steps including the privatization of detention security services and the refurbishment of Sydney's immigration detention centre, but had made no formal response to the report by the end of the year.

In November the UN Committee against Torture intervened to halt the deportation of Sadiq Shek Elmi, a Somali asylum-seeker, to Somalia, where he risked torture or extrajudicial execution. The Australian government's decision to allow Sadiq Shek Elmi to remain in the country followed appeals by Amnesty International which triggered protests and trade union action to prevent Sadiq Shek Elmi's plane leaving Australia. However, he was transferred to Port Hedland detention centre, some 4,000 kilometres from his lawyers and friends in Melbourne. The government warned Amnesty International that there would be "serious consequences" if the organization continued to use Sadiq Shek Elmi's name publicly; the authorities had sought a court order prohibiting publication of his name or "any information which might identify" him. The court order was overturned in December.

New juvenile justice policies resulted in the detention of minors, particularly Aboriginal children, in circumstances which in some cases constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Juvenile criminal suspects from the age of 11 were routinely detained for short periods in police cells for adults or in juvenile detention centres far from their homes. A 13-year-old girl from the Northern Territory was repeatedly detained for a series of minor offences for a total of about six weeks, mostly in local police cells for adults and a detention centre some 1,500 kilometres from her home, impeding contact with her family. Kwementye Ross, a 16-year-old Aborigine arrested in March for "protective custody" on suspicion of drunkenness, died in hospital after hanging himself from the bars of his police cell door in Alice Springs. Police failed to check his condition or the video monitoring his cell for about 40 minutes after he was placed in a police cell for adult women. Police had also failed to contact his family or local youth, legal and welfare institutions when arresting him, but had taken him directly to the police station where they left him in a cage on the back of the police van for 35 minutes. By the end of the year, no police officer had been charged with a criminal or disciplinary offence for his treatment.

Five prisoners and five police officers were injured in March after clashes between police and some 15 prisoners, mostly Aborigines and Maoris, at the Melbourne Custody Centre. Police officers working as prison guards repeatedly hit already subdued prisoners with batons after two officers were allegedly assaulted by prisoners. The injured prisoners were charged with rioting and affray, assaulting an officer and other charges, some of which were dropped when they confessed to having attacked police officers. None of the officers involved were charged or suspended from duty, but some faced possible "criminal interviews" by police internal investigators on the amount of force used. The incident was linked to intermittent overcrowding in the windowless underground prison where prisoners awaiting trial were held for up to three weeks, allegedly sharing cells with convicted prisoners for up to 20 hours a day.

In July Amnesty International received more than 50 reports of alleged ill-treatment and use of excessive force by Northern Territory police during the arrest of several non-Aboriginal young people engaged in non-violent protests against a new uranium mine on Aboriginal land. Up to 108 female and male protesters were held together overnight in a single small police cell. An Ombudsman investigation into these events had not been completed by the end of the year.

At least 92 people died in custody or during police operations, 16 of them Aborigines. The rate and circumstances of deaths in custody led to several inquiries, with some cases raising concerns about ill-treatment, inhuman prison conditions and lack of care.

For example, in January 18-year-old Neil Holt died in Canning Vale Prison near Perth after reportedly being forcibly restrained by guards who placed a mask over his head and chained his hands and feet together. The Western Australia Ombudsman subsequently began an inquiry into rising prisoner death rates, which had not been completed by the end of the year.

There were new developments in cases from previous years. In June a coroner's inquest found no explanation as to why Victorino Bongay Vivas' decomposed and decapitated body had not been discovered inside Western Australia's Wooroloo Prison for more than six weeks after he went missing in July 1996, reportedly leaving a suicide note.

Compensation of 60,000 Australian dollars (US$38,000) was awarded to the son of Janet Beetson who died in June 1994 of a heart condition at Mulawa Prison, New South Wales, after a court found that neglect in medical care had contributed to her death.

In June, two police officers were charged with assault following a Criminal Justice Commission inquiry into the brutal beating during arrest of several young Aborigines in Ipswich in March 1997 (see Amnesty International Report 1998).

In March an Amnesty International report, Australia: Silence on human rights – government responds to "Stolen Children" inquiry, urged the federal government to acknowledge as human rights violations the removal on racial grounds of thousands of indigenous children from their families under past government policies and to provide redress for victims (see Amnesty International Report 1998).

Also in March an Amnesty International delegate visited detention facilities and met government and prison officials, prisoners, lawyers and representatives of community organizations.

In June Amnesty International issued Western Australia Government should act on prisoner deaths, which recommended improvements in prisoner supervision and prison health care.

In October Amnesty International wrote to the Victorian authorities expressing concern about prison conditions at the Melbourne Custody Centre.

By the end of the year, Amnesty International had received a reply from Victoria police, which gave details of a violent clash between officers and prisoners in March, but had not received a response to a separate letter to the Minister for Police.

In a letter to Amnesty International in September, the Department of Immigration argued that Australia's policy on the detention of asylum-seekers did not contravene international law.

In November Amnesty International urged the Northern Territory government to ensure that children did not suffer discrimination in the justice system and were only detained as a last resort and then held separately from adults, in circumstances which allowed them to maintain contact with their families. In December Amnesty International received a letter from the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory which criticized the wording of a case study used by Amnesty International but failed to address any of the juvenile justice issues raised by the organization.

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