Former asylum seeker languishes in notorious Papua New Guinea prison

Helal 'Spicy' Uddin is fighting the government of Papua New Guinea for the right to live on Manus Island with his wife and young son.

Helal Uddin.

Helal Uddin is fighting for the right to settle permanently in Papua New Guinea. Source: Supplied

A former asylum seeker from Bangladesh continues to languish inside a notorious Papua New Guinea prison after yet another hurdle in his eight-year quest for freedom.

Helal “Spicy” Uddin is fighting Papua New Guinea’s immigration department for the right to return to Manus Island, so he can be with his wife and young son.

He has been detained in Bomana prison, near the capital Port Moresby, while his case works its way through Papua New Guinea’s legal system.

National Court Judge David Canning ruled in April 2020 that Uddin should be granted residency in Papua New Guinea for three years.

An inmate in prison waiting for an immigration case update
An inmate in prison waiting for an immigration case update Source: Supplied

But immigration authorities appealed the ruling, and he has been detained in Bomana prison since.

The appeal decision was due to be delivered in February 2021, but it was delayed when one of the Supreme Court judges died.

Now, Uddin and his supporters face another uncertain wait over his future.

“I’ve heard nothing, everything is stuck,” Uddin, 31, tells Dateline from Bomana prison.

“My wife and my son are struggling without me. They need money and I need to work for them. But at the moment, I can’t do that.”

An eight-year ordeal continues

From a small rural village in Bangladesh, Uddin washed up on the Australian territory of Christmas Island to seek asylum back in 2013.

Australian authorities quickly transferred him to the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea, where he lived in squalid conditions for some 18 months.

Helal Uddin.
An identity card from Helal Uddin's time inside the Manus Island offshore detention centre. Source: Supplied

Uddin says he left Bangladesh after taking part in a political protest in his home village against the ruling left-wing Awami Party.

He believed he would have been jailed and possibly tortured for supporting its rival party.

"Spicy" was given his nickname because he had worked as a chef in Bangladesh's capital Dhaka. He would go on to cook meals for his fellow detainees inside the Manus Island detention centre.

Uddin was released from Manus in 2016 when, in the face of mounting human rights concerns, the Australian government announced it would close the centre.

After he was released, Uddin met his wife, Alice Michael, on Manus Island and they married in March 2017.

Less than three weeks after they married, Alice gave birth to their son, Mohamed Ali. 

Mr Uddin's wife Alice holds the couple's young son.
Mr Uddin's wife Alice holds the couple's young son. Source: Supplied

Things went smoothly for the rest of 2017 as Uddin settled into free life on Manus Island - where he and his wife ran a small canteen in the town of Lorengau.

But authorities arrested Uddin in March 2018 after his claim for refugee status was rejected.

"The exemption ... which permitted you to remain in the country without an entry permit has ceased," Papua New Guinea's then-immigration minister Rimbink Pato wrote to Uddin at the time.

"You are therefore now unlawfully in Papua New Guinea. I have signed orders for your removal from the country and your detention until you depart.”

Uddin was eventually deported back to Bangladesh, torn away from his wife and young son.

He tried to return to Papua New Guinea through conventional legal routes, including by applying for a dependency visa in 2018, court documents state.

Court documents state that after these attempts were knocked-back, he paid a people smuggler to take him out of Bangladesh and back into Papua New Guinea.

Uddin was re-arrested in March 2019 after arriving in Papua New Guinea.

"He was arrested by the police in circumstances that are unclear,” Justice David Cannings told the National Court in 2020.

"There is no clear evidence as to why, how, where or when he was arrested."

Mr Uddin, a former chef, cooked for detainees on Papua New Guinea's recent Independence Day celebrations.
Mr Uddin, a former chef, cooked for detainees during Papua New Guinea Independence Day celebrations. Source: Supplied

‘How long will we wait?’

Dateline has attempted to contact the Papua New Guinea immigration department as well as current Immigration Minister Westly Nukundj to get an update on the appeal hearing. 

Refugee advocate Ian Rintoul says it is nearly impossible to get information about when Uddin’s case might finally be heard.  

“I talk to Spicy most days. Now we are just waiting for the appeal date,” he told Dateline.  

“It's just completely up in the air.  All the expectations - everything is just back where it was two years ago.  

“We're just waiting for a hearing. And then, how long will we wait after that?”

The stress of waiting, as well as being confined inside Bomana prison during the country’s COVID crisis, has taken a toll on Uddin.

Bomana prison was in 2018 featured in the ‘World’s Toughest Prisons’ documentary series. 

Mr Rintoul said Uddin had started losing hair from the stress of his detainment, and had also been hospitalised with pneumonia at one point.  

Uddin says he doesn’t want much – other than to live freely on Manus Island with his wife and his son.

“I talk to my son, and he tells me how he wants to eat apples, how the other boys’ fathers bring them food.

“But I can’t do that. I’m sorry for him, really.

“He wants me to buy toys for him, and I ask him how? While I’m here, there’s nothing I can do.”

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5 min read
Published 19 July 2021 at 9:05am
By Steven Trask
Source: SBS