October 24, 2015 | Abdul Hekmat for the saturday paper
In the three years before his suicide, Hazara asylum seeker Khodayar Amini says he was twice assaulted by police and was the victim of continual harassment.
On Thursday night, October 15, Khodayar Amini was preparing to cook for his five roommates in a suburb of Western Sydney. The phone rang, and he listened to his friend on the other end of the line. Australian Border Force had just raided his old address, about 10 kilometres away. Six officers had blocked the doors and windows and searched every room, checking the identity of the four people inside. They said they were looking for Amini’s new address.
The news shook him. He had already provided the immigration department with his new address but his encounters with Border Force made him nervous. Fearing that immigration officers would come and take him back to detention, the Hazara asylum seeker walked out into the night, leaving his belongings behind. “I don’t have other option. I have to run. I don’t want to go back in detention centre. I have suffered a lot there,” he told his friend. “They killed my best friend, Nasim Najafi.”
Amini fled the state, reaching Dandenong in south-east Melbourne, where he hid out in nearby bushland. Within three days he would be dead. He made a final phone call to two refugee advocates and while talking to them set himself alight. When police found his body, it was in a circle of scorched earth the size of a small room. He was 30.
The day before he died Amini had written in Farsi to one of the refugee advocates, Michelle Bui. Again he mentioned his friend Mohammad Nasim Najafi, who died in the Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre outside Perth in July, and two others who had committed suicide. Amini had shared a room with Najafi at Yongah Hill.
“I, Khodayar Amini, write the following few sentences with my blood for those apathetic so called human beings,” he wrote. “Yes they did this to me, with slogans of humanity, sentenced me to death. My crime was that I was a refugee. They tortured me for 37 months and during all these times they treated me in the most cruel and inhumane way. They violated my basic human right and took away my human dignity with their false and so called humane slogans. They killed me as well as many of my friends such as: Nasim Najafi, Reza Rezayee and Ahmad Ali Jaffari. They were my friends and their crime was that they had sought asylum in Australia.
“I write this statement with my blood for those who call themselves human beings, I ask you to stand up for the rights of refugees and stop people being killed just because they have become refugees. Humanity is not a slogan; every human being has the right to live. Living shouldn’t be a crime anymore. Red Cross, Immigration and the Police killed me with their slogans of humanity and cruel treatments.”
Khodayar Amini made the journey to Australia by boat in September 2012. He was one of 86 asylum seekers on a tiny vessel whose engine quit working, and was rescued by the navy after hours floundering in the ocean. Thirty-one of the asylum seekers were taken to Nauru but Amini was taken to Christmas Island and then to a detention centre in Darwin. After five months, he was released into the community on a bridging visa without rights to work, travel or study. The Red Cross was put in charge of his care.
The story Amini tells from here is one of confusion and mistreatment. Twice, he says, he was beaten by police officers. Once so badly that the pain of his injuries persisted for two years. He says he was harassed by police and immigration officials. In early 2014, he was returned to detention for 11 months after an argument with the Department of Transport, Travel and Motoring in South Australia over a small licence fee refund, but was released after a court found him innocent of misconduct. The uncertainty of his visa, the fear of being deported back to Afghanistan, wore away at his mental health. He felt unrepresented and helpless. He became convinced he would die.
“Asylum seekers might be in the community but it’s virtually impossible to recover and to feel safe,” says Louise Newman, a professor of psychiatry at Monash University. “When people have the ongoing fear – whether it’s fear of being sent home or fear of being re-detained and lack of certainty about their future – their trauma persists. They don’t know what awaits them. And they become fearful every day, and it could affect their daily life, like they can’t eat or they can’t sleep. And they become agitated. People in that state are much afraid. They feel that they have no escape from the things that are tormenting them.”
She continues: “One of the most appalling things about the Australian government response to the needs of asylum seekers is that it allows this to happen. We allow it to happen and I am saying it quite strongly: that we don’t do anything to prevent it, which is preventable.”
In the last two months of his life, Amini started writing accounts of his treatment. The notes are appeals for justice, but they are laced with fear of the system to which he appeals.
“I am scared they plan to kill me with any wrong accusation,” he wrote in one. “I feel that the police come to my house at night and have a plan to kill me. I can’t sleep at night because I fear the police would kill me. I am extremely scared. I feel every moment they would kill me. What in 2013, they hit me so hard that still feel the pain from that time.”
His three-page handwritten letter was in a mixture of formal Farsi and Hazaragi dialect. At the end of the last page, he added a note.
“Translation of this will be hard because I don’t have adequate literacy and no one has helped me. If there is any place, the translator did not understand, call me and I will explain verbally.” He copied out his mobile number, and signed in a script that is earnest and hopeful: “Khodayar Amini.”
After being released from his second stint in detention, again on a bridging visa, Amini moved to Adelaide and then to Sydney. He set up in a house with other asylum seekers, including a friend who had travelled to Australia on the same boat as him.
His friends noted changes in his physical and mental health. He developed a persistent cough, for which he was hospitalised several times. The cough continued through the night and in order not to wake his roommates he would wrap himself with blankets and sit up all night in the lounge room.
It seems his medical condition was not properly diagnosed, nor his mental health. Three months ago, he called the Red Cross, which is contracted by the government to provide assistance to asylum seekers in the community. His insistence that he receive medical assistance got him into an argument over the phone with a staff member. The incident was referred to police and he was charged with making threatening comments.
“Four officers came to my home,” he wrote in an account of what followed. “They said that they were trying to search the house. They did not search and asked if you have a gun. I asked them ‘What you are saying?’ They pointed to their pistol and I said ‘No.’ They handcuffed me. They searched my body. They searched two times my shoes. Then they moved to police station. When we’re going down through elevator, I coughed and they said ‘alcohol?’ I said ‘no’. I told them that I was sick and it is not in my hands. They punched with fist and knee and took me inside police station. They tortured me. I was there for about 5 and 6 hours. They forced me to give interview.”
At time of press, New South Wales Police had not responded to Amini’s claims of brutality.
Amini’s solicitor, Besmellah Rezaee, said Amini had no intention to kill or threaten anybody. Amini was planning to appear in court on November 10 and believed he would win the case. “He told me words to the effect, ‘They kill with cotton’, and stated that he used this expression out of frustration and extreme depression and this was interpreted as having made a threat to kill,” Rezaee said. “He went on to say, ‘How on earth would a helpless and despairing person like me make such a threat against person of authority and power? I fled killing and am seeking protection to save my life – how can I intend to take someone else’s life?’ ” The expression “kill with cotton” is a Hazaragi phrase; it means to kill someone slowly.
The Saturday Paper has spoken to Amini’s friends and roommates, some of whom had known him for three years. They described him as “a good guy” with no threatening behaviours, and said he was getting along with everyone very well. He was deeply frustrated by the claims made against him.
Increasingly, Amini had become reserved with personal information. His roommates say he was guarded, staying mostly at home, not going out with them; he was awake all night and frequently listened to melancholic songs of Ahmad Zahir, a popular Afghan singer. He gave up his belief in God. “I don’t believe in God,” he said. “I think Tony Abbot [is] God for refugee. [He] killed my best friend. Why? Why?”
Before leaving Sydney for Dandenong, Amini went to a Hazara community centre in Sydney asking for advice and help. “Can you stop the immigration for taking me back to detention centre?” Amini asked Abdul Alizada, from the Kateb Hazara Association. “They were behind my door, wanting to take to detention centre. I am too scared to go there. I don’t want to be deported back to Afghanistan.”
Alizada told him that it was beyond his power to stop immigration but he could write a support letter stating that he was of good character. “I can’t stop immigration from taking you nor I can hide you,” Alizada said, “but I can support by writing a letter.” They talked for about 45 minutes. Alizada said he saw no sign of depression or distress and found Amini “very elaborate”.
On Monday, when Alizada learnt Amini had set himself on fire, he was devastated. “I have a bad feeling that I can’t express it in words,” he said, his voice quivering. “I failed to help him.”
His friends feel the same: “He was a very nice guy. My heart ached when I heard about him. I have not slept for few nights.”
Amini recently launched a complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission against mistreatment by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. A letter was sent to him on October 15, but it was already too late. “In order to progress your complaint,” it read, “please sign and return the Authority to Release Information and/or document form by Thursday October 22, 2015.”
No one knows why Amini took his life. The notes he wrote in the last months of his life show a man persecuted by a system of uncertainty, terrified he would be deported, deeply mistrusting of authority. They show a man lost and uncertain where to find help.
“Are there rule of law, social justice and human dignity in this country?” he wrote in one. “If there is, why your behaviour is in contradictory to human rights? In 2014, the Adelaide police mistreated me because I was asking for the refund of my $32 [from Transport, Travel and Motoring]. Then, I was harassed, incarcerated, taken to court, tortured for 11 months inside immigration detention centre. What was my crime? How your treatment is different from the treatment of the Taliban and Daesh? For three years, you have tortured me in every way. What do you want from us? What’s our crime? In your view, we are not human beings.”
When he left the house for the last time, he told no one where he was going. A day before his self-immolation, he called his friends in the house and told them that he was still looking for a place but had found none. They heard nothing more.
On the night Amini left home, he sent Michelle Bui a text message: “Hi Michelle, are you free now. I want to talk to you. Very important.”
Bui spoke to Amini on the phone and he told her he was in a car hiding in the bush but did not disclose his whereabouts. He said he feared going back to detention.
On Saturday, Amini switched off his mobile phone. “The police and immigration check my mobile phone,” he said. “I think it’s off better.”
On Sunday morning, about 10am, Bui received a text message from Amini. It read: “I want to cut my life.” Bui tried to dissuade him and enlisted the help of another advocate from the Refugee Rights Action Network, Sarah Ross. Ross had experience in suicide prevention.
Bui and Ross called Amini on Facebook video chat. Amini showed them a petrol container. He poured it over himself. Again, they heard him repeating that immigration was trying to kill him. “We pleaded with him not to do it,” Bui said. “We then heard the lighter flick and saw flames. Sarah threw the phone on the ground so we didn’t see it. Obviously at this stage we both got very emotional. We heard the flames but we didn’t hear any screams or sounds from him.”
It was Monday before his friends heard of the death. Amini’s roommates were awake for nights, mourning him. They missed him, and his cooking. “He was a good cook.” A friend who used to sleep in the same bedroom as Amini said: “I did not believe he died when I heard about him on the news. All night, I lay in my bed in one side and tilted my head towards his empty bed, hoping he would walk every minute to sleep on his bed as usual. But he never did.”