For years, the Australian government had vowed never to allow asylum seekers like Bandesh, who had been processed on offshore immigration centers in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific nation of Nauru, to settle on its soil.
Now, suddenly Bandesh, and six others, were free in Australia.
“I was just shocked, I didn’t know what to do,” said Bandesh, a Kurdish refugee who fled Iran seeking safety Australia. “There is no more headcount, there is no high security, there is no fences. Wow.”
Their release has given hope to other detainees.
“I am very happy for him,” said Bandesh’s friend and onetime roommate Mostafa Azimitabar, who remains detained in a Melbourne hotel with around 60 other men brought to Australia from PNG and Nauru for urgent medical treatment. “His happiness helps me not to give up.”
Australia’s Home Affairs department has declined to comment on the freed men, but their lawyers say they all had upcoming court hearings when they would argue they were being unlawfully detained.
As the government prepares an urgent appeal against that September ruling in the High Court, human rights lawyers say they’ve been bombarded with requests from detainees to file similar cases.
A sea journey to prison
But Bandesh said he didn’t know about the policy when he came ashore on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island. “When I reached Christmas Island I thought, This is the freedom, the nightmare’s over, I am a free man now,” he said.
The law stated the men would be detained while they received treatment for various ailments including post-traumatic stress disorder, asthma, heart conditions, stomach illnesses and deteriorating mental health.
Bandesh was among the sick. He said he arrived in Melbourne in July 2019 to receive dental care and treatment for other mental and physical problems. He said in the past year he’s received one root canal procedure, and was waiting for more.
The men in the Mantra Bell hotel in Melbourne complained they were confined to one floor, with no access to outdoor areas and limited sunlight, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, when the only time they left the hotel was for medical appointments.
“We are concerned that ongoing closed detention is likely to adversely affect the health of the people in this cohort,” Santow said. He said the release of the seven men was a “positive step,” but that all detainees receiving treatment should be released to the community, unless individuals posed a security risk.
The government said the men need to finish their treatment, then move on.
“Transitory people are encouraged to finalize their medical treatment in Australia so they can continue on their resettlement pathway to the United States, return to Nauru or PNG, or for those who are not refugees, return to their home country,” a Home Affairs spokesperson said in a statement.
“No one under regional processing arrangements will be settled in Australia.”
Bandesh said he thought the government would never free him, so he got a lawyer and decided to take his case to court.
In September, a Federal Court judge found that a Syrian man who was held in detention for months after his visa was canceled was falsely imprisoned because the authorities were not actively processing or deporting him.
He made the order under habeas corpus, a legal writ used in common law countries to free people considered to unlawfully detained.
The judge made it clear in his ruling that “a person can only be detained for a purpose, which is admittance or removal from Australia, and that purpose must be pursued,” said the Syrian man’s lawyer Alison Battisson, from Human Rights for All, a pro bono human rights law firm. “The new piece of the puzzle is the pursuing of a purpose. You can’t just warehouse somebody.
“It’s an absolute game changer in terms of human rights law in Australia, and it has chipped away and counteracted almost 20 years of indefinite detention,” said Battisson. The Attorney General intervened to request an appeal in the High Court as soon as possible.
Lawyers for the seven men freed also planned to use habeas corpus in their submissions.
“Our submissions were such that we requested for their freedom and there was nothing else that would have satisfied us other than their freedom,” said legal representative Noeline Balasanthiran Harendran from Sydney West Legal.
A ray of hope
When word got out that the minister had granted some men visas, a ripple of excitement spread through the detention system.
Human rights lawyers said they were flooded with calls and messages from detainees asking if their case could be considered, and advocates rushed to renew their pledges to offer men accommodation, if they were released.
More cases are expected to be filed, but law firms and rights groups have warned detainees that attempting to pursue similar cases involves “very serious risks” that could see them forcibly removed from Australia.
Human Rights Lawyer George Newhouse said the men released face an uncertain future. The men’s lawyers declined to disclose the terms of their visas for privacy reasons, but it’s believed they are on bridging visas, typically granted for a short period only, with no guarantee they’ll be extended. It’s believe the men have the right to work, but will receive little government support.
“They are in a uncertain situation,” said Newhouse. “The system is designed to punish them for having the temerity to seek asylum in this country.”
From one hotel to another
Last Monday, as the men in Mantra hotel considered their options, they were informed by Australian Border Force officials they would be moved to a new place of detention. The lease on their hotel was expiring on December 30, a Home Affairs spokesperson said.
On Thursday, dozens of police were deployed to the hotel, including some on horseback who formed a corridor to prevent protesters from blockading the convoy of buses and police escort vehicles.
“The level of policing that was used to move 60 traumatized men just shows the ridiculous nature of this policy and hopefully Australians will finally realize that this is just absurd and it has to end,” said Graham Thom, refugee coordinator for Amnesty International Australia.
The men weren’t told where they were would be held until the buses pulled up at the new location, the Park Hotel.
There, the refugees have access to a restaurant on the first floor for meal times, as well as the roof, said Azimitabar.
There is more outdoor space there, but also reminders of other places he’s been held since arriving in Australian waters.
“Everything is white in this place, the corridor, the room. It makes me very anxious,” he said. “It reminds me of the time when I was in Manus detention in Oscar compound for three years. Everything was white. I was really hurt from that time.”
As Azimitabar and the other men settled into their new hotel rooms, protesters rallied outside, chanting “free the refugees.” Azimitabar couldn’t see or hear them. He doesn’t have a view of the street from his room; his window overlooks a cement wall.
Many of the other windows in the hotel are tinted, blocking the men from view.
“I waved at them but they couldn’t see me,” Azimitabar said. “I feel like a ghost.”
It is unclear if there will be more releases before the High Court appeal. The Home Affairs department said it was “aware” of the September ruling, but as it was subject to appeal it was “not appropriate to comment further.”
Bandesh said he worried for Azimitabar and the others, who advocates say are slipping further into despair about having lost years of their lives in detention, when all they wanted was safety.
“Of course, I’m worried,” Bandesh said. “I just want him to be free, like me.”
Pelosi to move forward with impeachment if Pence doesn’t act to remove Trump
“In protecting our Constitution and our Democracy, we will act with urgency, because this President represents an imminent threat to both,” Pelosi said in the letter to Democrats on Sunday night laying out next steps.
The House will try to pass a measure on Monday imploring Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment, through which he and the Cabinet declare Trump “incapable of executing the duties of his office, after which the Vice President would immediately exercise powers as acting president.” If Republicans object, as is virtually certain, Democrats will pass the bill via a roll call vote on Tuesday.
“We are calling on the Vice President to respond within 24 hours,” Pelosi wrote. “Next, we will proceed with bringing impeachment legislation to the Floor.”
But it’s not clear when exactly the Senate will take up the House’s measure. The Senate isn’t scheduled to return until Jan. 19, but will hold pro forma sessions on Tuesday and Friday. In theory, a senator could try to pass the House resolution by unanimous consent, but as of now it appears unlikely that it would pass.
On Monday, multiple House Democrats plan to introduce impeachment resolutions that would become the basis of any impeachment article considered by the House later this week.
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who will introduce an article of impeachment against Trump on Monday, said on Sunday that roughly 200 Democrats have co-sponsored the measure.
Currently, 211 voting members (plus three nonvoting members) support Cicilline’s legislation, and they are hoping to reach 217 voting members by Monday morning, enough for the House to impeach Trump, one Democratic source familiar with the matter told POLITICO.
A small number of Democrats have opted not to co-sign the bill, but privately say they will vote to support the resolution on the floor, the source added.
The impeachment effort in the House is likely to be bipartisan, with Democrats expecting at least one GOP lawmaker — Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — to sign on. A handful of other House Republicans are seriously weighing it, according to several sources, though those lawmakers are waiting to see how Democrats proceed, and some are concerned about dividing the country even further.
Among the GOP members whom Democrats are keeping an eye on are Reps. John Katko of New York, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Fred Upton of Michigan, Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington.
Across the Capitol, at least two Republicans — Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — have called on Trump to resign. On Saturday, Toomey told Fox News, “I do think the president committed impeachable offenses,” but told CNN the next day that he does not believe there is enough time to impeach.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has also said he would consider articles of impeachment.
Another option has emerged among some Republican and moderate Democratic circles — censuring Trump — though it remains highly unlikely to advance.
A censure resolution would gain far more support in the GOP than impeachment. Some Republicans have privately been pushing for that route and are trying to get Biden on board, according to GOP sources. That group of Republicans is also warning that impeachment could destroy Biden’s reputation with Republicans.
But censure is considered a nonstarter in an incensed House Democratic Caucus, where members see it as a slap on the wrist that gives Republicans an easy out.
The Democrats’ enormous step toward impeachment on Sunday comes after Pelosi and other top Democrats held a private call on Saturday night in which they discussed the potential ramifications that a lengthy impeachment trial could have on Biden’s presidency.
Democratic leaders discussed several options to limit the political effects on Biden’s first 100 days, with one option — floated by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) — for the House to delay the start of an impeachment trial in the Senate by holding on to the article of impeachment.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has sent out a memo to senators explaining that the Senate could not take up impeachment until Jan. 19 at the earliest, absent unanimous consent.
A final decision has not been made, and House Democrats will discuss the matter on a 2 p.m. caucus call on Monday.
Lawmakers are already privately expressing concerns about returning to the Capitol for multiple days this week, worried about both a potential coronavirus outbreak and whether the building is secure, given how easily an armed pro-Trump mob invaded on Wednesday.
The Capitol physician urged House lawmakers and staff to get tested in a memo Sunday, saying they might have been exposed to someone who had the virus while huddling for safety in a large committee room for hours on Wednesday. During the hourslong lockdown, several Republican members refused to wear masks despite being offered them by Democrats worried about the spread of the deadly virus.
Melanie Zanona, Olivia Beavers and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.
Matt Hancock Scraps “Unnecessary Training Modules” Blamed For Slowing Vaccine Rollout
5 min read
Matt Hancock said people will no longer need to undertake training including an anti-terrorism course to give the coronavirus jab after MPs said “bureaucratic rubbish” was delaying mass vaccination.
It comes as MPs called for the government to produce targets for the number of people given immunity before lockdown can be lifted.
The health secretary said a series of “unnecessary training modules” are being scrapped to speed up the process of getting people qualified to deliver the jab.
Speaking in the Commons, Sir Edward Leigh said he was shown by his fellow the Tory MP, a qualified GP, the “ridiculous form” he had filled out to start delivering the vaccine.
“When he’s inoculating an old lady, he’s not going to ask her if she’s come into contact with Jihadis or whatever, so the Secretary has got to cut through all this bureaucratic rubbish,” he said.
In response Mr Hancock said: “I am a man after Sir Edward’s heart and I can tell the House that we have removed a series of the unnecessary training modules that had been put in place, including fire safety, terrorism and others.
“I’ll write to him with the full panoply of the training that is not required and we have been able to remove, and we made this change as of this morning and I am glad to say it is enforced.
“I am a fan of busting bureaucracy and in this case I agree with him that it is not necessary to undertake anti-terrorism training in order to inject vaccines.”
Dr Fox had earlier challenged Boris Johnson to drop the “bureaucracy” and “political correctness” of the forms vaccine volunteers must fill out.
He told MPs: “As a qualified but non-practising doctor, I volunteered to help with the scheme and would urge others to do the same.
“But, can I ask the Prime Minister why I’ve been required to complete courses on conflict resolution, equality, diversity and human rights, moving and handling loads and preventing radicalisation in order to give a simple Covid jab?”
Mr Johnson said he had been “assured by the Health Secretary that all such obstacles, all such pointless pettifoggery has been removed”.
The government has been attempting to recruit thousands of volunteers to help with a mass vaccination programme, and with the recent approval of the more easily deliverable Oxford/AstraZeneca version has today revealed the location of seven mass vaccination centres set to open next week.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told journalists at a briefing they would be at Robertson House in Stevenage, the ExCel Centre in London, the Centre for Life in Newcastle, the Etihad Tennis Centre in Manchester, Epsom Downs Racecourse in Surrey, Ashton Gate Stadium in Bristol and Millennium Point in Birmingham, and it is expected they will be run with a combination of NHS staff and volunteers.
But so far the government has not said how many people need to be inoculated before it has an impact on the coronavirus restrictions.
Mr Hancock was asked by a number of MPs if the measures could be eased once the top few tiers in the vaccine priority list had been clear.
Former Conservative chief whip Mark Harper said once the top four groups, which includes care home residents and staff, frontline NHS workers, the clinically extremely vulnerable and everyone over 70 “we’ve taken care therefore of 80% of the risk of death”.
Adding: “What possible reason is there at that point for not rapidly relaxing the restrictions that are in place on the rest of our country?”
The health secretary replied: “We have to see the impact of that vaccination on the reduction in the number of deaths, which I very much hope that we will see at that point, and so that is why we will take this – an evidence-led move down through the tiers, when we’ve broken the link, I hope, between cases and hospitalisations and deaths.”
The ex-Tory minister and another doctor, Andrew Murrison, said: “The logic of anticipating what is going to happen in two or three or four weeks’ time from the number of cases we are getting at the moment is that we can do the same in reverse.
“That is to say, when we have a sufficient number of people vaccinated up we can anticipate in two or three or four weeks’ time how many deaths have been avoided.
“That means, since it cuts both ways he will be able to make a decision on when we should end these restrictions.”
Mr Hancock replied: “The logic of the case that Dr Murrison makes is the right logic and we want to see that happen in empirical evidence on the ground.
“This hope for the weeks ahead doesn’t take away, though, from the serious and immediate threat posed now.”
The Cabinet minister said the challenge for the government is to increase the amount of doses available, claiming “the current rate-limiting factor on the vaccine rollout is the supply of approved, tested, safe vaccine”.
He added: ”We are working with both AstraZeneca and Pfizer to increase that supply as fast as possible and they’re doing a brilliant job.”
But Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called for the government to ramp up its vaccination programme to six million doses a week.
He told the Commons: “The Prime Minister has promised almost 14 million will be offered the vaccine by mid-Feb. That depends on around two million doses a week on average.
“Both [Mr Hancock] and the Prime Minister have reassured us in recent days that it’s doable based on orders.
“But in the past ministers have told us that they had agreements for 30 million AstraZeneca doses by September 2020 and 10 million of Pfizer doses by the end of 2020.
“So, I think people just want to understand the figures and want clarity. Can ministers tell us how many of the ordered doses have been manufactured?”
Mr Ashworth added: “Two million a week would be fantastic but it should be the limit of our ambitions, we should be aiming to scale up to three, then five, then six million jabs a week over the coming months.”
How South African police are tackling pangolin smugglers
Quiet, solitary and nocturnal, the pangolin has few natural enemies, but researchers believe it is the most trafficked mammal in the world. The tough scales covering its body are sought after for use in Chinese medicine, in the erroneous belief that they have healing properties.
The animal has also been of interest to researchers during the coronavirus pandemic. Related viruses have been found in trafficked pangolins, though there is continued uncertainty around early theories that pangolins were involved in the transmission of the virus from animals to humans.
After South African police seized a pangolin from suspected smugglers, BBC Africa correspondent Andrew Harding witnessed how vets tried to save the animal’s life.
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