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Grave-digging, riots at Australia immigration centre

23 july 2011, 17:05
Inmates at Australia's Christmas Island immigration centre buried themselves in shallow graves in a symbolic gesture, a spokesman representing them said Friday, as riots erupted for a third night, AFP reports.

Immigration officials said there had been "another significant incident" involving up to 100 detainees at the remote island facility, but there were varying accounts of the latest protests among the asylum seekers.

Refugee advocate Ian Rintoul said some were digging shallow graves and burying themselves up to their necks in a show of their growing desperation.

"Asylum seekers in the Green compound have dug shallow graves in the courtyard of their compound," said Rintoul, who keeps in regular telephone contact with detainees at the centre.

"Some asylum seekers have already staged mock burials and buried themselves up to their necks in a symbolic protest that detention is killing their bodies and their minds."

A police spokeswoman told AFP that "the detainees used improvised weapons and lit a number of fires in a number of locations within the centre."

There was "cause to deploy a range of use of force options, including less-lethal munitions," she added, confirming tear gas, flash grenades and "bean bag" bullets were fired to quell the unrest.

It is the third consecutive night the centre has been rocked by violence and fires as detainees protest against delays in processing.

An immigration spokesman refused to comment, saying "there's been all sorts of claims made by all sorts of people".

"We wouldn't be going into those details," he said. "All we are saying is that there's been some unrest."

Rintoul said police had raided the centre's compounds early Friday searching for the protest's ringleaders and some detainees had been beaten or dragged away, presumably to the maximum-security unit.

The police spokeswoman said the force "strongly denies any mistreatment of any detainees" and had not received any official complaints.

The immigration department could not immediately confirm that anyone had been moved and said it did not "generally go into details of operational things like that."

Australia has a mandatory detention policy for asylum seekers arriving by boat and a record influx of some 7,000 boat people last year has placed the system under strain, with some detainees locked up for 18 months or more.

Rintoul said the protesters wanted human rights and media representatives allowed into the centre to witness conditions and had told him "we cannot get justice from the Australian government or immigration. We want international observers to give us protection."

Canberra recently beefed up the asylum character test so that detainees convicted of offences can be deported and the immigration spokesman said anyone found guilty over this week's riots had put their visa at risk.

About 40 asylum seekers were on hunger strike at a separate facility in Queensland, officials said, and were holding up protest banners in an outside area.

The unrest comes as Australia prepares to finalise an agreement to send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia in exchange for 4,000 registered refugees living in the Asian country.

By Amy Coopes

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