The truth or not about Manus Island riot

More than a fortnight since violence erupted at the Manus Island detention centre five separate investigations are underway.

A whodunit murder mystery set on a tropical island has potential political implications for Australia's offshore asylum-seeker detention policy.

It's been more than a fortnight since a fatal riot erupted at the Manus Island camp in Papua New Guinea that left one man dead and scores injured.

While there are five separate investigations under way into what happened on February 17 the truth may never be fully established.

This is what we know so far: trouble had been brewing at the centre for several days.

On the afternoon of February 16 the PNG immigration authority had a meeting with asylum seekers to answer a series of questions about their fate and prospects of resettlement.

It's claimed they were told resettlement in a third country was not an option. It was PNG or nothing.

That night 35 asylum seekers escaped and eight were later arrested by police.

On February 17 at about 5pm (local time) a group of 50-70 asylum seekers at Oscar compound began a brief demonstration.

Two hours later the Royal PNG Constabulary deployed their dog squad along the perimeter fence.

By 9.25pm, asylum seekers had pushed down fences and were throwing rocks and sticks.

Non-essential staff were evacuated at about midnight, and police discharged a gas canister and fired warning shots.

Unrest continued for a couple of hours until order was restored at 3am.

By then Iranian national Reza Berati was dead and 62 others were injured, including one man who was shot in the buttocks.

Most of the others had head injuries.

An unnamed Australian guard, employed by the G4S security firm, described it as "a frenzy of out-of-control violence".

He told the ABC PNG police stood back and allowed locals to break into the compound.

"We saw them going in with machetes. They had anything they could pick up - rocks, sticks, the poles from the exercise weights."

"Once they knocked people to the ground, they were stomping on their heads with their boots."

A day later guards and staff and cleaners were walking around with blood on their boots, the guard said.

Since the riot terrified asylum seekers sleep during the day and stand guard at night.

So far there have been no arrests.

A leaked PNG police report suggests the cause of Berati's death was caused by multiple blows to the head with a plank of wood.

Police claim management at the detention centre mishandled the initial meeting, sparking the subsequent violence.

There are also claims a Manus Island local, employed by the Salvation Army, was responsible for the attack on Berati.

Adding to confusion is the fact that G4S guards and police wear similar dark blue uniforms.

The incident is being investigated by the PNG police, the coroner, a judge and a former senior Australian bureaucrat.

Now the Senate has voted to have one of its committees conduct an inquiry, affording witnesses the protection of parliamentary privilege, especially staff with confidentiality clauses in their employment contracts.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison says the coronial and police investigations will be "synthesised" with an independent review by Robert Cornall, a former head of the Attorney-General's department.

Co-ordination would ensure "a clear statement of the facts" and a "shared understanding of the findings and implications of these events for the ongoing management of the centre and the resettlement process".

Australian Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young dismisses the investigations as a "co-ordinated whitewash".

Cornall wants to interview asylum seekers, staff from service providers and G4S guards but it's yet to be decided whether immigration department officials will be present.

That was the main criticism of a review he conducted into sexual assault allegations at Manus in 2013.

Cornall rejects claims that staff may be too scared to speak freely about what happened.

The Greens want the Senate inquiry to address the government's duty of care to vulnerable people.

Labor, who sent asylum seekers to the island in the first place, wants the spotlight squarely on the actions of the Abbott government.

"It's time they actually take responsibility for what is occurring under their watch," immigration spokesman Richard Marles argues.

But any negative findings against G4S potentially could rebound on Labor because it was the Rudd government that contracted the security firm.

The inquiry will start on April 1, after Cornall has delivered an interim report to the government, and report back to parliament in late June.

It's yet to be decided whether senators will travel to Manus Island to take evidence from witnesses.

A previous inquiry in 2011 held hearings on Christmas Island into a boat tragedy which claimed close to 50 lives the previous year.

"I think it's really important that we try and get as much information out of the camp as possible," Hanson-Young says.

Manus MP Ron Knight has been vigorously defending the actions of police and locals, claiming the riot was triggered by asylum seekers holding 20 detention centre staff under siege in the centre's kitchen and mess hall.

They hurled rocks and clubs before police came to the staff's rescue, he says.

The PNG government has a lot to lose if the Abbott government has to close the detention centre.

Port Moresby is getting $420 million for various health, education and justice aid projects for agreeing to process and resettle asylum seekers who arrived in Australian territory by boat.

In the meantime Morrison will have monthly ministerial meetings with his PNG counterpart to iron out the resettlement arrangements.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has called for the arrangements to be reviewed to ensure the human rights of asylum seekers are protected.

Source AAP

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch