Imprisoned refugee inhumanely treated

The treatment of Algerian refugee Ahmed Zaoui is a blot on the Government’s record. He remains in solitary confinement in Paremoremo prison 10 months after he arrived here seeking asylum.

It is seriously affecting his mind. Psychology Professor Tony Taylor has assessed Mr Zaoui and found him to be suffering from anxiety, depression and physical problems. He risks a mental breakdown.

This does not mean Mr Zaoui is a weak person. Over the past 12 years he has suffered imprisonment, torture and harassment, yet remains engaged with the cause of democracy in his homeland.

Mr Zaoui is feared by the Algerian regime, not because he is a terrorist but because he is the opposite. The Algerian military, which effectively runs the country, would much rather deal with real terrorists than a respected advocate of peace and democracy such as Mr Zaoui.

Mr Zaoui should not be in jail. Algerian accusations that he is a leader of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) have been thoroughly disproved by our Refugee Status Appeals Authority.

It will be unconscionable if Mr Zaoui is forced to remain alone in his tiny D-Block cell for several more months, through hearings on a Security Risk Certificate applied to him by the Security Intelligence Service. The hearings could take a long time because Mr Zaoui will not be told the charges against him, and will be forced to cover all possible bases with his witnesses and documentation.

The Government says that because Mr Zaoui is the subject of a Security Risk Certificate, he must remain in detention. I do not accept this. But if he is to be detained, it should be in the most humane environment, such as the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre.

It is a low-security establishment, but it would be hard to argue Mr Zaoui would be a danger if he escaped. What could he do? Disappear into the community? This is hardly likely, given that most New Zealanders know his face. Set up a terrorist cell here? A totally fanciful idea. Flee overseas? But that’s exactly what the Government wants him to do. He could leave tomorrow if he wanted. It is not as if he is a criminal awaiting extradition.

Mr Zaoui’s 10 months in Paremoremo have been shattering. We have had to fight all the way to get him the most basic rights. When I first visited him last December, he had not been given a Koran, any other books, writing paper or access to a working radio. Technically he had the right to phone his wife, but the prison authorities said they could not get through to her (even though supporters outside the prison could).

He was roughly treated by a prison guard and called a terrorist. Eventually these problems were ironed out, and the prison staff are now friendly to him.

But he still has fewer rights than any other prisoner in New Zealand.

According to Corrections Minister Paul Swain, he is a “remand prisoner”.

Yet he does not have the extra rights such prisoners are supposed to have over sentenced prisoners. For example, while convicted prisoners at Paremoremo can mix with each other, Mr Zaoui is kept in isolation.

Until recently, he was allowed only 30 minutes to an hour outside his cell, and then only into the corridor – not outside in the yard, like other prisoners.

Now he is allowed in the yard, on a Tuesday and a Thursday, on his own, of course. He is allowed only one or two visitors on a Sunday, whereas in the Auckland Central Remand Prison, remand prisoners can have visitors on four days of the week.

As a civilised society, how can we justify this? The mistreatment of Mr Zaoui has violated section 9 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights, which states that “everyone has the right not to be subjected to … degrading, or disproportionately severe treatment or punishment”, and section 23, that “everyone deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the person”.

Mr Zaoui’s access to a proper legal process has also been compromised by the use of secret, classified evidence against him. As the European Court of Human Rights ruled in a recent anti-terrorist case (Al-Nashif v Bulgaria, 2003), “the individual must be able to challenge the executive’s assertion that national security is at stake”, and independent judicial bodies must be allowed to overrule “an interpretation of ‘national security’ that is unlawful or contrary to common sense and arbitrary”.

From the time Mr Zaoui arrived last December he has been treated in a manner contrary to common sense. The original police threat assessment on December 11 acknowleged that its information came from an extreme-right American political cult headed by Lyndon LaRouche which, in turn, retails slanders from the Algerian regime.

It is also clear from this police document that a prime reason they wanted Mr Zaoui isolated was because there was “the political risk that he will try to gain some support by utilising the media”.

A functionary of a police state could not have said it better – but isn’t that the sort of state Mr Zaoui has been fleeing from? Surely we can do better.

* Keith Locke is the Greens’ foreign affairs spokesman.