Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights

AUSTRALIA: Compensation Isn’t Justice in Aboriginal Death – Critics

Stephen de Tarczynski

MELBOURNE, Australia, Aug 10 2010 (IPS) - Late on a hot summer morning in January 2008, 46-year-old Aboriginal elder Mr Ward climbed into the back of a prisoner transport van for the 360- kilometre, four-hour journey from the small Western Australian goldfields town of Laverton to Kalgoorlie, a larger mining centre, where he was due in court to face drink driving charges.

But Ward, whose full name cannot be used for cultural reasons, never made it.

Instead, with outside temperatures that day topping 40 degrees Celsius and the airconditioning unit not working inside the stifling enclosed section of the van in which Ward was being transported, he collapsed and was taken directly to Kalgoorlie Regional Hospital, where he was pronounced dead after efforts to revive him failed.

A post-mortem examination found that Ward died of heatstroke, which Western Australian state coroner Alistair Hope last year concluded was “a result of being held in the rear pod of the (prisoner transport) vehicle in conditions of grossly excessive heat.”

But no criminal charges will be laid despite Hope’s finding that the state’s Department of Corrective Services and GSL – the company that was contracted to provide custodial services in Western Australia and that has since changed its name to G4S – as well as the two GSL transportation officers all contributed to Ward’s death.

The western state’s Director of Public Prosecutions Joe McGrath considered the case but in June reported that “there was no reasonable prospect for conviction” of anyone involved.

To compensate Ward’s family, the state government announced on Jul. 29 that it would be making ex-gratia payments totalling 3.2 million Australian dollars (2.96 million U.S. dollars) to his widow Nancy and their children.

While the state’s voluntary payment has been welcomed, there remains a strong sense here that those responsible for Ward’s death have escaped justice.

“Financial compensation is not unimportant in such circumstances, but it is no substitute for justice and the systemic review and reform that should flow from the proper application of justice,” wrote federal Member of Parliament Melissa Parke on the social media website, two days before the ex-gratia payment offer was made public.

“No amount of money can ever compensate for the enormous loss suffered by Mr Ward’s family and community,” added Dennis Eggington, chief executive officer of the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia (ALSWA). Ward, whose talents included hunting, land care and art, was a highly respected elder within his community at Warburton, located south of the Gibson Desert in Western Australia.

He was also a leader and activist, having battled for his people’s rights within the Gibson Desert Nature Reserve for years and representing the Ngaanyatjarra cultural group’s lands in Australia and overseas, including as part of a delegation to China.

The ALSWA will consult with Ward’s family about possible civil proceedings against the government and G4S, while WorkSafe WA, the state’s work safety watchdog, has until January 2011 to investigate and decide whether to lay civil charges.

The ALSWA is also calling on G4S to match the government’s compensation payment, although such a voluntary response appears unlikely, at least for now. A company spokesperson told IPS that while G4S accepts responsibility for its part in Ward’s death, the issue of whether it will also be making an ex- gratia payment “hasn’t been discussed.”

Marc Newhouse, chair of the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee (DICWC) of Western Australia, said that despite the government’s payout, Ward’s family is “still angry and adamant that…there should be some form of justice.”

The DICWC was established in 1993 by a range of organisations and individuals including church groups, unions, lawyers and Aboriginal organisations to monitor the implementation of the 339 recommendations stemming from the 1987-1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

The Commission was set up in response to concerns regarding the high number of indigenous deaths in custody, with exactly 100 indigenous Australians dying prematurely while incarcerated from the beginning of 1980 to the end of May 1989.

The commissioners found that the deaths of indigenous inmates were roughly proportionate to their over-representation in Australia’s prison population.

Newhouse says that one of the key recommendations of the Royal Commission “was that imprisonment should be used as a last resort and that’s clearly not the case under this state government and previous Labor (Party) governments.”

In his report, Coroner Hope noted several procedural errors after Ward was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol, including the way in which he was refused bail and the fact that bail was not considered as an option.

“One of the most disturbing issues to come out of the death of Mr Ward is how the litany of errors that occurred highlights how the system operates in ways that result in unequal outcomes for Aboriginal people who come into contact with the justice system,” Newhouse told IPS.

While an inquiry into the transportation of detainees, prompted by Ward’s death, is before the Western Australian parliament, Newhouse wants “an independent public inquiry into systemic racism in the administration of the justice system” to be established.

Aboriginal people “simply don’t have confidence or faith in how the current system works,” he said.

The controversy surrounding Ward’s death comes at the same time as fallout continues from the 2004 death in a Queensland state police cell of Aboriginal man Mulrunji Doomadgee.

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