• Picture: Australian Human Rights Commission (Supplied)
Indigenous deaths in custody are shrouded in a lack of transparency, says Amnesty International as it releases its annual report.
Andrea Booth

24 Feb 2016 - 10:11 AM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2016 - 11:10 AM

Amnesty International has called for an inquest into the death of Queenslander Shaun Coolwell, as it releases its international report into the state of human rights, which points out Indigenous deaths in custody in Australia.

“Amnesty International is concerned about the circumstances surrounding the passing of Mr Coolwell,” Roxanne Moore, Amnesty’s Indigenous rights campaigner, told NITV News.

Mr Coolwell’s family believes he suffered a death in custody, and that he was subjected to excessive force before his death, Ms Moore says.

Mr Coolwell, 33, died on October 2, 2015 in Kingston in Brisbane. 

“Amnesty International would really like to see a full coronial inquest into this matter to get to find out all the circumstances surrounding this.”

His brother died in a similar incident four years earlier.

Amnesty makes this call as data over the number of deaths in custody that occurred through 2014 and 2015 remain unclear.

NITV News requested this data from the Australian Institute of Criminology.

A spokesperson says it will be available later in 2016. The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet has already provided data for the 1990-2013 period.

“It is really concerning that there is a lack of data around the number of Indigenous deaths in custody,” Ms Moore said.

“We need to have that transparency if governments are going to be held accountable for Indigenous deaths in custody. It’s particularly important this year as we lead up to the 25 year anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

“Amnesty International is aware of at least five cases of Indigenous deaths in custody in the last year and that’s really concerning.”

Northern Territory 'needs to repeal' paperless arrest laws

Ms Moore says Australia needs to scrap its paperless arrest laws if it wants to decrease the high incarceration rate of Indigenous people, which is about 15 times higher than non-Indigenous Australians.

“What they’re doing is criminalising non-criminal behaviour,” Ms Moore says.

While there has been a decline in deaths in custody from 2005 to 2013, Indigenous deaths in custody comprise 18 per cent of the total deaths in custody between 1990 and 2013. Yet Indigenous people only comprise 2 percent of the population.

“Amnesty International believes that these laws need to be repealed and unfortunately the Attorney-General John Elferink of the Northern Territory is not moving on this position,” Ms Moore said.

Ms Moore says Indigenous people, such as Kumanjayi Langton who was arrested under the Northern Territory’s paperless arrest laws and later died in custody, shows how important it is to repeal the controversial laws.

Mr Langton, 59, who died three hours after he came into police custody following a heart condition, was arrested under the paperless arrest laws last year for drinking in an unregulated place.

Greg Cavanagh, the coroner looking into Mr Langton’s death, gave a scathing report on the paperless arrest laws on the basis that they disproportionately targeted Indigenous people.

"It is no coincidence that the first man to die under the laws is an Aboriginal man,” he told media last year.

Mandatory sentencing 'increases' Indigenous incarceration rates

Amnesty International says mandatory sentencing should additionally be repealed.

“Mandatory sentencing for burglary offences has not been shown to work and it only increases the problem of the over-representation of Indigenous people in the justice system. Not only that but it also breaches Australia’s international human rights obligations.

The report notes Indigenous children are 24 times more likely to be incarcerated than their counterparts, that Australia breaches international obligations on the age of criminal responsibility, which is set at 10 in all jurisdictions while the recommended age is 12.

It also drew attention to the federal government handing over responsibility of remote communities in Western Australia to the state government, which caused uproar across Australia about potential closures.