He was just one day from freedom and an Australian visa. Now Mohammad, beloved of many female refugee activists, faces indefinite detention for a sexual assault he says he didn’t commit. Who is telling the truth?

In his reluctant tour of Australia’s immigration detention centres, Mohammad earned the nickname “the gym guy”. At his current abode on Christmas Island, the 26 year-old won the Ironman competition, pretty much the only victory he’s enjoyed since his boat sailed into Australian waters three-and-a-half years ago. A photograph he posted on social media shows him stripped to the waist, skin oiled, muscles flexed. The image would be shockingly vain except that he’s looking down at his rippling torso, self-consciously coy.

The photograph conceals the deep scars that streak both his arms. One of Mohammad’s mostly female supporters, who remain constant despite a criminal conviction tarnishing his name, assumed the cuts came from self-harm. But Mohammad explains the wounds originate from Iran – “a long story that I don’t like to talk about” – where he says he agitated for women’s rights. Like many migrants, or would-be migrants, he still refers to his native land as “my country”. At his trial for indecent assault in Melbourne last year, Mohammad implored the judge: “I left everything in my country. The only thing left for me is my dignity. If that’s taken away from me, I have nothing.”

Mohammad protests his innocence despite having been convicted of the offence

Mohammad protests his innocence despite having been convicted of the offence. I have chosen not to disclose Mohammad’s surname as publishing it might have dangerous repercussions for his family in Iran. Yet it is also true I find Mohammad enigmatic; a riddle of a man caught in the half-light of Australia’s unyielding border control regime.

Back in his country, Mohammad, the eldest of four, left high school at age 15 and started work at his father’s factory near Tehran. Four years later he was swept up by the Green Movement, the uprising sparked by the disputed 2009 presidential election that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. Mohammad fell in with student protestors, their focus shifting from the lost cause of presidential politics to broader demands for liberalisation. The students were demanding human rights, Mohammad claims, especially women’s rights. As the authorities responded with raids, arrests and torture it became apparent the university was no longer a safe base for dissenters. So they switched their operational headquarters to the factory, though Mohammad’s father was kept in the dark.

One night Mohammad was running late to a meeting of protestors at the factory; unbeknownst to him, the authorities were following his trail. On arrival at the factory he was arrested, along with the group’s ringleader, for printing incendiary pamphlets. This stint in jail may or may not explain his scars.

After workers in neighbouring factories identified Mohammad’s father as the owner, he was also arrested, then released a short time later when the students insisted he had no knowledge of the clandestine activities on his premises.

Eventually the authorities released Mohammad too. But Mohammad’s father told him to leave Iran immediately – prescient advice as a court, in an order verified as authentic, would sentence Mohammad in absentia to 10 years prison. The then 22-year-old made contact with people smugglers and flew to Indonesia. A month later he boarded a small boat carrying two nights’ water supply, little food and 60 people. They sailed for an “utterly terrifying” 12 nights to uninhabited Ashmore Island, 320 kilometres off Australia's north-west coast. Within a week he was in detention at the Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island. It was just before Christmas 2012.

He spent a month on Christmas Island where, to quote a fellow Iranian who arrived by boat within days of Mohammad, every day comprised of “sitting, asking ‘anything happen to your case?’ Eat and sleep, eat and sleep.” The daily routine was much the same in Mohammad’s next stopover, Nauru, the offshore processing centre for boat people, re-opened by the Gillard government, though the conditions were so toxic they made headlines.

Former Salvation Army employee, Mark Isaacs, remembers Mohammad arriving at Nauru as part of a second cohort of Iranian men in January 2013. Isaacs, whose devastating exposé of the detention facility, The Undesirables, was published a year later, says the Iranian men tended to protest on arrival before the system wore them down. “They rioted and then mellowed.” He recalls one man in Mohammad’s batch was “horrible to women.” Another cut himself with tubing lights in front of everyone.

As for Mohammad, Isaacs remembers “a very quiet man, shied away from cricket, was always at the gym”.

Mohammad joined other protestors in sewing his lips together. Several times he tried to hang himself. After two months of hell on the Pacific Island, he was transferred to Sydney’s Villawood detention centre.

Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Sydney

Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Sydney

“Always polite, a sweet boy, but quite withdrawn – shut-down, closed-up”

It was in Villawood that asylum seeker activists linked up with Mohammad. He befriended performing arts teacher Emma Fredman from the group SASS, Supporting Asylum Seekers Sydney, and now among his most loyal supporters. He also met Anna Buch and Bobbie Waterman, the SASS founders, who lead a group of about 30 volunteers to Villawood each week, providing emotional and practical help to roughly 100 detainees. Buch had been visiting Villawood for a few months when Mohammad arrived from Nauru in March 2013. Like Isaacs, she found him “always polite, a sweet boy, but quite withdrawn – shut-down, closed-up”.

Says Waterman: “Everyone who came from Nauru was pretty damaged. But he would always come out to see us and many of them wouldn’t.”

Bobbie Waterman, founder of Supporting Asylum Seekers Sydney

While in Villawood, Mohammad converted to Christianity, obtaining a certificate of baptism. (Another “long story”, he says, mysteriously.) In September 2013, after six months in Villawood, Mohammad was again transferred, this time to a detention centre in Melbourne.

When Waterman visited from interstate the following year, she was struck by a “thrilling” change in his demeanour.

“His English was much improved and his confidence seemed to have grown. His spirits were higher.

“I remember we had about 10 Hazara boys who were very quiet. I kept wanting to talk to them, but he was very keen and super-excited, wanted to know about this and that... I thought, ‘gosh, he’s very needy for outside contact’.”

He’d been seeing a girl from outside… he was busy planning his freedom.

By the time his other supporter, Fredman, visited the Melbourne facility in mid-2014, Mohammad was overtly buoyant and optimistic. He told her he’d been seeing a girl from outside the centre for about six months and she visited regularly. And best of all his caseworker had assured him his bridging visa was imminent. He was busy planning his freedom. He’d be moving in with a friend and volunteering at a gym. As Mohammad had arrived by boat after August 2012, he was barred from paid work under the Gillard Government’s “no advantage” policy.

“The next time you see me I’ll be on the outside”

“He said to me, ‘the next time you see me I’ll be on the outside’”, Fredman recalls.

Mohammad and Fredman insist the timing at this juncture – his being poised for freedom after more than 18 months in detention – is highly significant. The notion he would do anything to jeopardise his release is absurd, Fredman insists.

A more jaded view of human nature might suggest that when a prize sought for so long, pursued with such desperation and cunning, finally appears within reach, elation can morph into emboldenment.

Mohammad says he signed the paperwork for his bridging visa on 3 July 2014. Six days later his already fraught existence took a turn to the calamitous.

On 9 July 2014, Kylie Evans*, leading hand cleaner at the detention centre run by private multinational Serco, was on afternoon shift with co-worker Sally Johnson*, who was middle-aged.

“Her eyes were red, she had tears rolling out, she was stuttering”

At about 3pm, Evans and Johnson walked towards one of the centre’s accommodation compounds, places that in immigration facilities are named, somewhat ironically, after Australian landmarks or explorers. Johnson was heading to clean room 25, occupied by a disabled detainee. Mohammad lived next door in room 24. Evans thought him a nice guy, always working out, “the gym freak”. As Johnson entered the compound, Evans did the “chemical run” to replenish cleaning stock, visiting the cleaning cupboard inside the centre’s main communal area and then another container about four metres from the compound. Evans was leaving the storage container, materials in hand, when she saw Johnson approaching. As she told the County Court of Victoria, her co-worker was visibly distressed, “her eyes were red, she had tears rolling out, she was stuttering”.

“She said she was trying to enter room 25”, Evans remembered, “but she didn’t have the right set of keys on her, so the detainee in room 24 let her through because they share a bathroom in between… he’d let her in and closed the main bedroom door. She couldn’t get through the bathroom door because that had been locked as well”.

Johnson’s own evidence of what happened next can only be gleaned from comments by barristers and the judge at trial because under laws introduced in Victoria during the past decade sexual assault complainants give their evidence in closed court.

He tried to kiss her. He groped her breasts. He grabbed her around the neck and ran his hand down her front.

The details changed slightly with each telling, although as the prosecution asserted, it was consistent in key aspects. Mohammad pinned her against the bathroom door. He put his arms around her. He tried to kiss her. He groped her breasts. When she tried to wriggle free, he grabbed her around the neck and again ran his hand down her front. She tried again to break loose from his grip and succeeded. She pushed him away and fled the room, leaving her cleaning implements behind.

Evans said Johnson had also described Mohammad holding her wrists up against the door, and making lewd remarks. Another co-worker remembers Johnson saying she had protested to Mohammad, “I’m not here for that”. In her evidence before the County Court, Johnson added the further detail that Mohammad followed her out of the room and said “sorry”.

Evans hugged Johnson. At that moment their boss, Graham Smith, was heading for the storage container. He immediately saw something was wrong. He stopped. As Johnson repeated her story, Evans left for Mohammad’s room. She knocked on the door. No answer. She entered, retrieving Johnson’s cleaning implements: bucket, sprays, cloth, gloves.

The news swept through the detention centre. Smith and Evans accompanied Johnson to the human resources manager; a security officer; the manager of “client” security; and the cleaning supervisor. The latter recalled the story “coming out all higgledy-piggledy”. Swiftly, the scandal reached the centre managers. Someone in the managerial hierarchy gave the order to inform Mohammad of the allegations and arrange for his immediate transfer to another facility.

As Smith was leaving the security office – where Johnson had been reporting the incident to the manager – Mohammad rushed to him. The detainee was highly anxious, Smith recalled. In an exchange that was the subject of lengthy cross-examination in court, Mohammad pleaded to be allowed to speak to Johnson. But Smith insisted “that’s not appropriate”.

That night Mohammad slept at a new detention centre, unaware it would be home for nearly two years, his bridging visa suddenly on ice.

In the aftermath, an officer from Broadmeadows police station arrived to interview Mohammad, but she came without an interpreter and the discussion was too halting to be meaningful. Shortly afterwards, the officer went on maternity leave. The case stalled. Then on 18 September, more than two months after the incident, Senior Constable David Lister and his colleague, First Constable Lee Salmon, tried again, now bringing a Farsi interpreter. Apparently the exercise was just as fruitless on this occasion, though we can’t be sure because the police did not rely on the interview at trial. According to Salmon, Mohammad simply said, “I accept none of this”.

Two days before Christmas he was charged with indecent assault and false imprisonment

Two days before Christmas 2014 he was charged with indecent assault and false imprisonment, the latter for allegedly closing the door to his room after inviting Johnson inside. Mohammad's mental health plummeted. He became withdrawn. When Waterman, shocked by developments, sent him a Facebook message of support and offered to visit from Sydney, he thanked her profusely, but declined, explaining, “I really am not in a good place”. He observed gloomily the detainees in his eight man unit changing every fortnight, shunted between compounds in handcuffs. Six months after he was charged, Mohammad says, his romantic relationship ended.

In May 2015, Mohammad faced the Broadmeadows Magistrates Court, represented by a high- profile criminal law firm. He was convicted on both charges and received a three-month sentence wholly suspended for a year.

He seethed and brooded. For the next five months he shopped around for new lawyers to take his case on appeal. He became incensed when lawyers advised that pleading guilty would earn him a substantial discount on his sentence, perhaps even allowing him to avoid a conviction and preserve his chances of obtaining a visa. No way, he said. He must clear his name.

This was when, at Fredman’s urging, I first made contact with him. (It needs to be said that Mohammad is wary about my publicising his plight.) “What do you think of this lawyer?” he asked me on the phone one afternoon. “Good lawyer?”

It was only after Mohammad’s conviction in the Magistrates Court – nearly a year after the incident – that police returned to the scene of the crime for a more thorough investigation. They asked the centre managers if there was any CCTV footage of the compound the day of the incident. No, was the answer – the only security cameras were on the perimeter fence, a fair distance away. The police wanted to photograph the accommodation block but were told the portable dwelling had since been shifted. They took four statements from detention centre staff. They did not ask any detainees whether they remembered hearing screams or an altercation on the day in question.

Appeals from Victoria’s Magistrates Court go to a full re-hearing in the County Court. On October 14 last year Mohammad appeared in front of Judge Mark Taft to assert his innocence in a case that hinged on who is more believable, Mohammad or Johnson. He-said, she-said.

Each day of the hearing, university student and activist Linah Winoto shows up to lend moral support and assist in conferences with Mohammad’s barrister.

On seeing her, Mohammad’s taut expression bursts into an exuberant grin. “How’s it going?” he asks, chuckling as if this was their private joke. To me too he is unfailingly courteous. “Hello Miss” he says, offering his hand and brisk pleasantries.

Linah Winoto, university student and activist

At every court appearance Mohammad is accompanied by three uniformed Serco officers.

On the afternoon of this first morning, after Johnson, the police officer and a handful of detention staff have been through the witness box, Mohammad’s barrister Amelia Beech – blonde hair twisted into a stylish roll, a dancer’s poise and a rapier-sharp mind – calls him to give evidence. In taking his oath, he swears on the Bible.

Mohammad’s barrister, Amelia Beech 

Mohammad’s barrister, Amelia Beech 

Before he learnt of Johnson’s accusations, Mohammad testifies, the 9th of July played out like every other utterly unmemorable day in detention. Most likely, he was “just doing the normal things”, activities, lunch, watching films. (“He didn’t embellish his account”, Beech later argues in his favour.)

He struggled to understand, being unfamiliar with the term “sexual assault”

And he was pretty sure he hadn’t interacted with Johnson anytime that day. Nor had he seen any cleaning equipment in his room. The first he heard of the allegations against him, was when an officer approached him in the late afternoon. But he struggled to understand, being unfamiliar with the term, “sexual assault”. When the officer said a female cleaner had accused him, Mohammad asked, “are you talking about Kylie (Evans)?” “That was the only name I knew among all the cleaners”, Mohammad explains, as he had once asked Evans for air-freshener for his room. The officer said “not Kylie, Sally”, and described her appearance, “so then I could guess who he was talking about”. Mohammad was “absolutely baffled, I couldn’t believe it. I was in shock”, so when he saw the cleaners’ boss, Graham Smith, he asked him if he could access an interpreter or his case manager, or at least speak to Johnson.

Is it true that the first Mohammad learnt of the allegations was from the security officer, Tom Latimer? Yes. And that was the first time he learnt Johnson’s name? Yes. And that he was then told he would be transferred to another facility? And until he was transferred an officer stayed with him the entire time? Yes.

So Mohammad had approached Smith before his talk with the security officer, correct? After all, he was alone then – no officer tagging him yet. Mohammad agrees. “Because you already knew something had happened with Johnson before you spoke to Graham Smith – so that’s why you asked to speak with her.” No, Mohammad protests.

Later he explains that another officer, not Tom Latimer, but an officer whose name he can’t remember – “it’s hard to memorise, I would call him, ‘mate’ or ‘brother’” – was the one who had first told him about the allegations, and he was the first one who had mentioned Johnson’s name.

I cannot decide whether Mohammad is outfoxed because of confusion and nervousness, or just snookered by the truth

No matter how many times I revisit this exchange, I cannot decide whether Mohammad is outfoxed because of confusion and nervousness, with the questions and answers lost in translation and who knows what cultural differences surrounding time and the sequencing of events, or just snookered by the truth.

The Prosecutor raises the subject of Mohammad’s girlfriend. They could only rendezvous when she visited at the detention centre, correct?

“So what I suggest is that you were a bit”, she hesitates, “frustrated, in a sexual way. And that’s why you groped the breasts of...”

“This is not true. In the detention centre I have communication and interaction with lots of ladies, lots of girls. I train them at the gym, and there were occasions when we were alone in a room – and most of these ladies were younger than this lady, and spoke my language as well. And I didn’t have any problem.”

Mohammad finds this accusation of sexual frustration risible – it is one of several themes he returns to over and over during our phone conversations. These calls often start with a polite "hello Miss Julie", and end with Mohammad muttering "thank you very much" and abruptly hanging up.

“They say I have a problem with sex”

“I didn’t do it. I’m four years in detention, I never touched anyone and the day before I’m out they say I have a problem with sex,” he tells me.

“She (Johnson) is like my grandmother, you know? She is lying because she wanted to be my friend, tried to be close, tried to talk to me.”

“What did she want from you?”

“I don’t know... my English was not so good then. Everywhere she goes she just put her eyes on me, I’m not stupid, I can see.”

Six months after the trial I have a brief phone conversation with Johnson. When I repeat Mohammad’s observations she scoffs under her breath. “That is false”, she says, her voice polite and unruffled. “It’s a straight, flat-out lie, and I’m not going to say any more about that. I don’t want to cause trouble for anyone but I think what he did was out of line.”

The Prosecutor persists. Mohammad had asked to see Johnson because “you wanted to say sorry to her again”. After the incident he had followed her and said ‘sorry’ because he didn’t want her to report the incident, because he knew such an accusation would affect his chances of a visa.

“I know this visa thing is important.” Mohammad’s voice grows louder.

“But more important is my dignity.”

In her final submission on Mohammad’s behalf, Beech highlights the inconsistencies in the prosecution’s evidence – and as she tells me privately later, the most curious of these was Johnson and Evans’ “vastly different” accounts of their work arrangements on a day when mundane details would surely have been rendered memorable. Johnson was adamant they worked as a pair, Evans said they worked individually. Johnson said Evans had left on an errand to get a full set of room keys, Evans said she was on a chemical run, and so on.

Beech refers to inconsistencies in Johnson’s varying accounts of the assault, flaws in her statements about where she left her bucket and cleaning materials, illogical strands in her evidence, the lack of corroboration, problems in the police investigation. Nor was there any reason to reject Mohammad’s evidence. He was consistent. He conceded failures of memory. And such an act would be out of character because he had a girlfriend at the time, because he’d been active for women’s rights in Iran.

But Judge Taft says Johnson was distressed at the time the complaint was made, and if her account were too consistent it would appear scripted.

“She leaves the room immediately, makes complaints to a number of people, was distressed, crying and upset. In most cases of sexual assault a proposition is put to the complainant about why she might falsely make such a claim. None was put here.”

Judge Taft went on to say that Beech had asked Johnson whether she’d claimed compensation for the incident, “and that exploded in mid-air”. (She said no.)

She tells of her persistent anxiety since the accident, the impact on her relationships, her troubled sleep, and revisiting the scene of the attack every working day

Judge Taft found Johnson “an honest and credible witness”. Any discrepancies in her evidence, the police evidence, and her account of the incident to other people are minor and properly explained by her distress and the passage of time. In her victim impact statement made six months after the incident, and read in court by the Prosecutor, Johnson tells of her persistent anxiety since the accident, the impact on her family relationships, her troubled sleep, and the difficulty of revisiting the scene of the attack every working day. “I did not expect or ask someone to take away my self worth”, she says. Judge Taft dismisses the charge of false imprisonment for technical reasons – though Mohammad insists on seeing this as some sort of vindication. Otherwise, he finds the accused guilty of indecent assault.

Fredman, in a character reference tendered in court, writes of Mohammad: “I've seen the way he treats women (including my 70 year-old mother who has visited him a few times) and myself and can see how he has great respect for women. I do believe that his conviction is totally out of character for him.”

With me, Fredman is emphatic about his innocence, unruffled even when I point out her belief is based on nothing but faith. “Mohammad would never do this”, she says.

Emma Fredman, a member of Supporting Asylum Seekers Sydney and one of Mohammad’s most loyal supporters

A fellow Iranian asylum seeker who played interminable rounds of backgammon with Mohammad during their internment at Christmas Island, Nauru, and Villawood says, “it doesn’t make sense”. The man, who declines to be named out of concern about his immigration status, tells me: “At Villawood he was in the Hughes compound, the least security place. Lots of married people lived with us and the Banksia (compound) was all women. He was happy, going to the gym even then with a lot of daughters (women). I didn’t see him do anything to any daughter.”

Waterman, the other Sydney activist, doesn’t know what to believe, though she entertains theories about cultural misunderstandings around gender and sex. “There’s a lot of misreading of things between men and women when the men come from a Middle Eastern country and they haven’t necessarily been tutored in the way we think. Cues and signals may be blurred and that’s very difficult for the men to understand.”

When Mohammad returns to court for sentencing a month later, he again veers between jovial and exasperated. He fidgets with his collar. He grows increasingly fractious. He’s reluctant to let the Office of Corrections assess his suitability for a community corrections order. He tries to sack Beech; she tries to sack him, the judge refuses them both, citing concern for Mohammad’s rights, while also expressing sympathy for Beech’s predicament. That predicament includes her representing Mohammad for next to nothing, as Legal Aid funded her cross-examination of Johnson but nothing more. Though her client confronts a potentially catastrophic outcome, Beech is the only professional in the room not being paid.

Mohammad wants to address the judge “personally”. The judge refuses.

“I’ve made my decision.”

Mohammad fiddles with his shirt collar.

Ordinarily, a sexual assault at the lower scale of offending, results in a community correction order – the perpetrator avoids jail time, does unpaid community service, and attends sex-offender programs. At the sentencing hearing a week before Christmas last year, Judge Taft says he would have preferred such a penalty for Mohammad, but has reservations about whether the order would be practical and feasible given he's in detention. The order is administered by a state government authority, the Office of Corrections, but for Mohammad to comply with its conditions, the Department of Immigration, a federal authority, must co-operate. And as a representative from Corrections told the judge, such co-operation is rarely forthcoming.

These complications seem to irritate Judge Taft, whose C.V. attests to a lifelong commitment to social justice. A fit-looking man, at every reference to a petty and heavy-handed federal bureaucracy he appears to straighten to his already straight back and clenches his jaw.

The law says that if an appropriate penalty is unavailable, a court should choose one less severe rather than go up the list to a harsher punishment. Still, Judge Taft says, a good behaviour bond would be an inadequate penalty considering the “objective gravity” of Mohammad’s offence. On the charge of indecent assault he fines Mohammad $1750, with a stay of six months. And he records a conviction.

The judge addresses Mohammad: “You have no prior convictions. You clearly have had a very hard time both in Iran and more recently in Australia, and your past good character is to be taken into account.”

Mohammad must “clearly understand” his conduct was “wrong, unjustified and caused great distress.

“I trust that you too have learned from his proceeding and I consider it unlikely that you would reoffend in a like way again in the future. You are relatively young and while your immigration status remains to be determined, you present as a person who could make a genuine contribution to Australian life and to the community.”

Immigration law deems the offence “serious,” analogous to that of murderers, paedophiles and terrorists

Despite Judge Taft’s encouraging remarks about his prospects of rehabilitation, brutal realism suggests Mohammad is unlikely to get the chance to prove him right. Even though his transgression is relatively minor under criminal law, because it took place in detention, immigration law deems the offence “serious,” analogous to that of murderers, paedophiles and terrorists. Mohammad automatically fails the “character test” under section 501 of the Migration Act, which means he can only obtain a visa if the Minister himself decides to be generous. In December 2014 the migration laws were tweaked to give the Immigration Minister greater powers to cancel visas of convicted criminals; the following year over 900 people had their visas cancelled on character grounds, a more than five-fold increase on the previous year. While nothing is certain, only the most committed optimist would see a Minister rushing to leniency for an unauthorised asylum seeker who committed a sexual violation before he was even released to the community.

Meanwhile, off-camera, in some possibly dubious diplomacy Australia and Iran are negotiating a deal to repatriate failed asylum seekers. After meeting with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in Canberra in March, her Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said that if any failed asylum seekers wished to return to the Islamic Republic voluntarily, “we always take our citizens with pride”.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Canberra in March 2016.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop with Iranian Foreign Minister 
Javad Zarif in Canberra in March 2016.

But Mohammad says, “I cannot go back to my country”. So barring deportation to a third country, he is most likely in indefinite detention.

At 5am on the day after Australia Day this year, guards from a private security firm appeared in Mohammad’s room. “They just came and grabbed me, big guy, tough guy, they handcuff you, take you to the airport, put you on a plane. They just tell you, ‘be patient’.” He landed at the immigration facility at Christmas Island, which at least has the comfort of familiarity. And he is reunited with some other veteran detainees stuck in the system.

Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre

Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre

For Johnson, the future holds out the promise of closure on the incident. During our phone conversation in May, she told me the police sent her the claim forms for crimes compensation. She will seek what she’s entitled to. “I have to get on to that”, she says, “I just need a clear mind”.

When I speak to Mohammad three months after his Christmas Island transfer, he goes down the routine checklist of grievances. The lawyers who “ripped me off”; their various sins of omission and commission; his victimisation as an asylum seeker; what he regards as the victim’s agenda and her ever-changing story. Mohammad’s a big guy, he says if he’d put his arms around the woman’s neck it would leave a mark. So where are her medical records? Why no pictures of the accommodation area, with its tightly packed 50 rooms? If there was really a commotion someone would have heard something – there were always dozens of people hanging around.

“The judge found me guilty by error of the law”

“The judge found me guilty by error of the law.” Mohammad says this with great conviction, as if the logic is self-evident. All he needs is a lawyer willing to file the appeal papers for him, the rest he can do himself, no problem. But his enquires keep hitting a dead end.

“I called about one thousand organisations… and they say ‘no, because you don’t have a jail term’.”

By this I assume the lawyers mean that cash-strapped Legal Aid won’t fund appeals against a non-custodial sentence. And yet because Australia’s immigration regime is almost devoid of leniency, Mohammad does, practically speaking, have a jail term. A hefty one.

Beech rates Mohammad’s chances of successfully appealing his conviction as slim. She says it’s arguable Judge Taft engaged in faulty reasoning when he said Johnson’s credibility was “in no way undermined” because the defence couldn’t establish a motive for her to fabricate the story.

“It effectively reverses the onus of proof by putting the burden on the defence to prove a motive for her to lie. It’s a problem because there’s an implication that someone wouldn’t put themselves through the trauma of giving evidence and being cross-examined about something so personal if it wasn’t true. That’s a logical human reaction, and we know there was a time when sexual assault victims were routinely disbelieved by police and the courts, but it’s at odds with the fundamental basis of our legal system, which is that guilt must be proven beyond reasonable doubt and that it’s the prosecution’s case to prove that.”

For all Mohammad’s bitterness towards her, Beech remains steadfastly in his corner.

“Say hypothetically he did it – well, according to the court, he did it – maybe that’s because he’s a young man who has been imprisoned with no treatment to help him cope with what he went through in Iran, no access to justice or counselling, and no real chance of seeing his family again.”

During one of my calls to Christmas Island I ask Mohammad how often he communicates with his family in Iran. When he first arrived in Australia, they would speak nearly every day, Mohammad says. Now it’s just once every three to four months. As he explains in a tone devastatingly matter-of-fact, “I have nothing to tell them”.

* Names of detention centre staff have been changed.