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Asylum seekers abused at
privatized detention centre

Calls in Australia to stop private companies running prisons and detention centres grow as details of shocking conditions at the remote Woomera centre for refugees have been revealed.

In the desert centre of Australia, Woomera is a small town extremely reliant for jobs on the company Australasian Correctional Management (ACM), which runs the refugee detention centre. It is also dominated by the defence force and has a history of high security – established as a site for the launching of British rockets in 1947, public entry to the town was restricted until 1982.

Word corner

Brazil, Peru and Argentina
Brazil is named after the brazil tree, a South American hardwood producing a red or purple dye. The tree’s name is from the Spanish brasa, which means ‘glowing coals’. The brazil ‘nut’ (actually a seed) is from a different tree, the Bertholletia excelsa.

Peru is named after the river Biru or Peru (meaning water or river in Guarani).

Argentina was named by Spanish explorers after argento (silver). The Rio de la Plata (River Plate) is also named after local silver deposits.

Susan Watkin

But after two nurses who worked at the detention centre blew the whistle on the alleged cover-up of sexual abuse of a 12-year-old boy, Woomera’s secrets are out in the open. This followed the broadcast on national television in August 1999 which showed around 80 detainees rioting over their conditions.

Australia has one of the toughest refugee policies in the world, requiring the mandatory detention of asylum seekers under high security. ACM won the right to run Australia’s six immigration detention centres in September 1997. According to the Department of Immigration, a consultant carried out an investigation into standards of the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation and their subsidiary ACM before the contract was awarded. But this was hardly thorough. For instance, at the Arthur Gorrie remand centre in Queensland, run by ACM, four inmates committed suicide and a fifth died in mysterious circumstances within the first 13 months of its privatization in 1992. Under the contract between ACM and the Australian Government the company will incur financial penalties if its ‘negative points’ become too high. Many believe this provides an incentive for the company to gloss over or cover up problems in their detention centres.

International protest is needed to press the Australian Government to change its policies (see ‘Action’ below). Accountability and transparency of operations at refugee centres are severely weakened by their privatization. And the isolation of the migrants is enhanced by corporate procedures. Many staff at Woomera also work in prisons and treat asylum seekers like violent criminals. Yet when around 500 detainees broke out of Woomera in June last year the vast majority went to the town’s park where they staged a peaceful protest chanting: ‘We want freedom.’

ACTION: Demand an end to the use of private prison companies to house asylum seekers and an active government effort to respect the human rights of detainees. Write letters to:
The Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs,
Philip Ruddock, Parliament House,
Canberra ACT 2600.
Fax: +61 2 6273 4144.
Or call: +61 2 6277 7860.

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Asteroid conquest
While corporations claim ownership of the earth, SpaceDev has its sights set much higher. Founder of the company Jim Benson reveals his plans to claim parts of outer space beginning with an asteroid. ‘Property rights in space are a necessary ingredient to encourage humanity to climb up off the surface of the Earth,’ says Benson. ‘NEAP [SpaceDev’s Near Earth Asteroid Prospector] will be going out to a small lifeless body, of which there are millions, and we will claim ownership in order to set a precedent. I think that is a very positive thing to do. There are very few people against it except UN bureaucrats.’ The UN’s Outer Space Treaty of 1967 contains no provisions allowing property rights in space.

New Scientist Vol 168 No 2260

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Irritating but useful
‘To irritate’ is the aim and literal name of ‘La Funa’ – a group of Chilean activists who track down people who served in the secret police during the Pinochet dictatorship. Once located, the ‘irritating people’ wave signs and chant slogans to make public the identity of those who participated in abductions, torture, murder and disappearances. Since La Funa started a year ago, nine people have been denounced for human-rights violations, prompting right-wing Senator Maximiliano Errázuriz to file a complaint against La Funa for illegal association. ‘What we do isn’t a crime, at least under Chilean law,’ insists spokesperson Yuri Gaona. ‘It’s a form of social justice.’

Latin America Press Vol 32 No 35

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Poor living standards banish older
women from their communities

The growth in the number of female witches in Ghana may suggest something is spiritually wrong in this African nation. Although both men and women can practise witchcraft, it is only the women, especially the older ones, who are branded as witches and banished from the village while their male counterparts are treated with the greatest caution and are feared.

The witches’ camps where the exiled women gather are found throughout northern Ghana but the ‘Gambaga Witches camp’ is widely known for accommodating most of the accused. The camp, about 160 kilometres from the regional capital of Tamale, was established in the late 18th century. But now Gambaraan, an exorcist and a custodian of the camp, says the number of witches is getting out of hand. Presently there are about 8,000 outcasts in camps in Ghana’s Northern Region. About 80 per cent of them are women between the ages of 45 and 90 years old and some of them have been there for over 30 years. Although living conditions are poor, most dare not go back to their respective communities since they have been stigmatized and are likely to be lynched.

One of the outcasts says she was accused of causing a range of ills including polio and cerebro-spinal meningitis in her village and so was exiled. Most of the deaths that are attributed to the ‘witches’ are not based on any spiritual dimension but on human activity – such as the overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions that often precipitate malaria, cholera, polio and meningitis. The way out is for the Government to improve living standards, thereby preventing disease and the frustration that leads to these accusations. Otherwise the number of ‘witches’ will continue to grow.

Samuel Wiafe

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Going bananas
What’s the point of stacking 40,000 bananas by hand? The artist Doug Fishbone, who has done this in Guayaquil, Ecuador, says ‘the main reference is to the heaps of stolen Jewish possessions in the Nazi camps. The bananas call to mind the heaps of gold bars in Western central banks. They also symbolize the developing world’s natural wealth. It’s a metaphor for how the developing world’s financial reserves end up being an externally controlled export economy.’ In 1999 Fishbone stacked 25,000 bananas in Cuenca, Ecuador. The highlight of this installation was when the bananas were given away to the crowd – the artwork disappeared within an hour. Fishbone is currently considering an installation of bananas in New York’s financial district to make more people think about the similarity between Nazi theft and the US-dominated global economy. Besides, he chuckles, ‘40,000 bananas is always good for a laugh.’

New York Press

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Thai military overreacts to
Burmese resistance

On 12 November 2000, Burmese opposition radio reported that Ko San Naing (alias Ye Thiha) had been arrested by Thai military intelligence. He is one of the leaders of the infamous group, Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors (VBSW). He hasn’t been seen since.

Ko San Naing is not the first member of the group to have met a grim fate. The VBSW was formed in mid-1999 with roughly 20 members. Their first action took place in October that year when five members of the group raided the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok, taking those inside hostage. Thai police eventually agreed to fly the hostage-takers to the Thai-Burma border and release them.

Local and international media coverage praised Thai police for the peaceful resolution of the incident. What seems to have been omitted from media reports is the fate of Saw Tin Oo.

Arrested outside the embassy while it was under siege, he remained in custody in Thailand for five months. He was then taken to the Burmese border and handed over to members of Burma’s Defence Services Intelligence.

On 1 March 2000, Rangoon East District Court sentenced Saw Tin Oo to death for high treason, as well as eight years’ imprisonment for associating with an ‘unlawful’ group.

‘It is very distressing to get this news because there has been no clear proof that this person, Saw Tin Oo, was directly involved in the hostage-taking incident,’ says Debbie Stothard, director of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma.

In January 2000, members of the VBSW joined with members of the ethnic Karen guerrilla group God’s Army and entered Ratchaburi General Hospital. They were demanding medicine and assistance for people in the nearby border villages who were being attacked by Thai and Burmese soldiers.

After negotiations with police, the group surrendered their weapons. Thai commandos then assassinated them. ‘Eyewitnesses and the hostages themselves said the commandos had carried out extrajudicial killings of the hostage-takers after the latter had laid down their weapons,’ Thai newspaper The Nation reported.

In mid-2000, Ko Johnny, one of the VBSW leaders in the embassy siege, was ‘disappeared’ by Thai intelligence. Burmese opposition radio reported that Thai intelligence took Ko Johnny after promising to provide treatment to his wounded leg. Like Ko San Naing, Ko Johnny hasn’t been seen since.

Over a year after the embassy siege, the outlook for the VBSW is grim. Remaining members of the group are in hiding from both Thai and Burmese governments.

Dave Gilbert

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Faulty pipes
Previously unrecorded geological faults could fracture oil pipelines in southern Alaska, creating an oil spill worse than that from the Exxon Valdez tanker in 1989, says local geologist Peter Haeussler. After the release of secret geological surveys carried out by oil company ARCO Alaska over the past 40 years, Haeussler constructed the first map of faults beneath the Cook Inlet, southwest of Anchorage. Haeussler says the folds in which the faults occur look like those that killed 5,000 people in Kobe, Japan, in 1995. While the oil platforms are probably safe, he says, ‘the pipelines are the weak link in the chain. Some of them might rupture in a quake.’

Geological Society of America Bulletin Vol 112

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Jumping mines
The US is developing landmines that move around to avoid the crews that clear minefields. The self-righting mines will detect the distance to their neighbours using ultrasonic sensors and communicate with each other via radio. If some mines are removed or destroyed the remaining mines will sense that they are missing and move around until they form a regular pattern. This technology ensures the area is always mined and is being developed despite US plans to sign the Ottawa Convention banning landmines in 2006.

New Scientist Vol 167 No 2258

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Big Bad World by Polyp
Big Bad World cartoon.

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