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Australia Allegedly Pressured Human Rights Chief to Quit After Report on Children in Detention

The Australian Federal Police are investigating whether the government tried to corruptly entice Gillian Triggs into leaving her post as Human Rights Commission president.

by Scott Mitchell
Feb 26 2015, 5:50pm

Photo by JJ Harrison

Australia's attorney general is in hot water after the president of the country's Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, informed a parliamentary committee this week that his office had offered her another job as inducement to resign. Prime Minister Tony Abbott's government had lost confidence in her after she delivered a damning report on the "profoundly negative" conditions faced by asylum seeker children in Australian immigration detention.

A department secretary relayed the government's displeasure to Triggs and offered her another job, the attorney general's office conceded, but it denied that it had asked her to resign. Triggs insists that the two were "clearly linked."

The opposition Labor Party referred the allegation to the Australian Federal Police (AFP), which will investigate whether the government acted corruptly.

Triggs had authored a report that spelled out the dire situation of children held in the country's immigration detention centers. She uncovered allegations of 233 assaults against children and widespread psychological trauma among the minors, who are held as part of Australia's mandatory detention of all asylum seekers.

Australian PM feels no guilt over 330 child asylum seekers in detention. Read more here.

During a Senate hearing on Tuesday, Attorney General Department official Chris Moraitis said he did not ask Triggs to resign.

"I said that the attorney unfortunately lost confidence in her as chairman, however, he had high regard for her skills and had significant goodwill towards her," he explained. Moraitis told Triggs that "the government would be prepared to consider positively a senior legal role for her."

The conversation took place after Triggs had submitted her report, but before it was made public.

"I have a five-year statutory position which is designed for the president of the Human Rights Commission specifically to avoid political inference," Triggs said in her testimony at the hearing. "I thought it was a disgraceful proposition."

The alleged offer of an inducement to affect the actions of a public official is a criminal offense, as the Labor Party was quick to stress.

"The attorney general's offer to an independent statutory officer of an inducement to resign her position as president, with the object of affecting the leadership of the Australian Human Rights Commission to avoid political damage to the Abbott government may constitute corrupt and unlawful conduct," wrote Labor MP Mark Dreyfus in his complaint to the AFP.

Attorney General George Brandis, the chief law officer in the country, was put through the ignominy of being asked in senate committee on Wednesday if the police and spoken too him.

"Have you had a phone call yet from the AFP, Senator Brandis?" asked Labor Senator Stephen Conroy. Brandis remained silent.

The entire affair continues to make Triggs the focus of debate in Australia, rather than her findings on children in immigration detention centers.

"Rather than dealing with the contents of the Commission's report, the government has launched a hysterical political attack against its president," Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young told VICE News.

At a Senate committee hearing on Monday, Hanson-Young shook loose the revelation that a 16-year-old a girl jumped from a first floor balcony at the Wickham Point detention center in the Northern Territory, shattering her pelvis. The girl survived the jump and is currently in hospital.

The senator discovered that the girl had been moved to Wickham Point from Australia's detention center on the island nation of Nauru.

"It's been put to me that this young girl had raised issues of sexual assault in Nauru — are you aware of that?" she asked immigration official Ken Douglas at the hearing.

"I have seen a late report this afternoon to that effect," he replied, "but I think the department is going to undertake further investigations into those claims."

Asylum seekers in Australia could soon be headed to Cambodia. Read more here.

A spokesman for Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told VICE News that the department was considering a review of sexual abuse on Nauru, and that it was undertaking an internal audit of all reported incidents involving children dating back to 2008.

In response to a question about what kind of mental health support was offered to the girl involved in the jumping incident, the spokesman answered that "a range of professional health services, including mental health professionals, are provided across the detention network."

Kon Karapanagiotidis, CEO of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Darwin, believes the care offered in detention centers is inadequate.

"The conditions of detention are inherently abusive, they're inherently damaging to children," he told VICE News. "The conditions meet the those of child abuse. If this were an Australian parent, these kids' cases would be up for child abuse."

Follow Scott Mitchell on Twitter: @s_mitchell
Photo via Wikimedia Commons