Migrants’ protest | Inquiry board says no excessive force used by RIU

Inquiry board says rejection of appeals extending detention period "might" have contributed to frustration of detainees wanting to air grievances with MPs' delegation • MPs release no statement to board of inquiry
 

The board of inquiry said more training, more welfare support, more space is required to make mandatory detention acceptable
The board of inquiry said more training, more welfare support, more space is required to make mandatory detention acceptable

As it happened • Recommendations

An inquiry board set up by the home affairs ministry to understand what happened during a protest by detained asylum seekers at the Lyster Barracks on 25 February, has suggested that it was “possible” that it was down to the communication of final rejections by the Refugee Appeals Board and the visit of five MPs the next day.

The protests on the day were quelled by a riot squad that was filmed shooting rubber pellets up towards the first floor where detainees are hosted. The inquiry board said that due to the fact that only slight injuries were incurred by a few detainees, excessive force was not used in the quashing of the protest.

When a claim for asylum is both rejected in the first instance and on appeal, while the asylum seeker is still in detention, their detention period is automatically extended to 18 months – something that has already been ruled illegal by the European Court of Human Rights in the Suso Musa judgement.

But the inquiry board has claimed that “it is difficult to determine with any certainty what caused the disturbances of the 25 February.”

None of the MPs, who were there on a fact-finding mission, released any statement to the board of inquiry, which was chaired by Joseph St John, and comprised John Agius and Kevin Borg. The board was tasked with determining the type of intervention made by the disciplined forces, what triggered these incidents, and to recommend ways of avoiding similar incidents.

The board said that two detainees were aware of the delegations’ visit, raising expectations for them to communicate their concerns, leading to a congregation of some 18 detainees in the recreation area on the day of the delegation’s arrival.

The board said the layout of the Hermes Block “makes it more likely for disturbances to escalate”.

But it said that detention “may cause frustration among irregular migrants” but stopped short of arguing against the detention policy.

Recommendations

In their recommendations, the board said a new reception section should be provided for newly-arrived migrants, with more space so that asylum seekers can be detained in separate blocks from persons detained for the purpose of return.

The board said that NGOs assisting migrants should encourage those whose asylum applications are clearly unfounded or who have had their application rejected, to take up voluntary return opportunities. It said the government should offer better voluntary return opportunities.

It said the Detention Services Unit should be provided with training and professional support, and police officers given ongoing training on controlling riots.

The board said the DS should have welfare unit that can obtain a profile of each detainee, so as to better identify vulnerabilities, skills training required and other issues of concern. Detainees should have training sessions and other activities, so that time of detainees will be occupied “in worthy issues.”

But it also said that the Hermes Block at Lyster should have windows that do not allow detainees to throw objects at anyone in the yard, chainlink structures at the staircase to prevent the throwing of solid objects by detainees; and the introduction of a procedure that allows detainees the chance to meet any high-profile delegation in their own respective zone in the centre, rather than congregate outside in the recreation area.

Facts of the case

On the day, MPs Deborah Schembri, Jason Azzopardi, Claudette Buttigieg and Marlene Farrugia conducted a visit at Lyster Detention Centre, Hal Far.

The detainees who were in the recreation yard adjacent to Hermes Block requested to go inside, in order to speak to the MPs, but in the circumstances detention services head Mario Schembri advised the members of the delegation to interrupt the visit, to prevent further disturbance.

As the MPs left the detention centre, some of the detainees started causing disturbance by shouting and breaking property of the Detention Centre.

Schembri received a phone call from Colonel Ian Ruggier – the same AFM official who had implemented the ‘Ruggier Plan’ in the violent quashing of a migrants’ protest back in 2005 – informing him that the disturbance had resumed.

The security fence at the recreation area had been forced open and Detention Service officers were preventing the detainees from escaping, while another officer was repairing the fence.

Ruggier informed Schembri that several of the detainees were throwing bottles of water, stones, milk cartons and hand cream in the direction of the Detention Centre personnel. Colonel Ruggier further added that he tried to calm down the detainees with no success.

“Threats were directed towards the Detention Centre staff and one of the detainees claiming Ghanaian nationality was observed brandishing a pointed stick. Moreover, this detainee was also reported to have spat at Col Ruggier’s face. The situation was getting out of control. Colonel Ruggier recommended to Schembri that in the circumstances it would be best to request for Police assistance as the Detention Officers would be unable to control an escalation of the situation.”

The detention staff interrupted water and electricity supply to minimize any adverse effects that could worsen the situation. At 1pm, the Rapid Intervention Unit arrived. The board says that at this point, “some detainees” were observed gathering stones, sticks and bottles filled with black fluid, “whilst gesturing and posturing in a hostile manner.”

The RIU comprised of 18 officers, later joined by all the other units, 30 officers, on duty during the first and second watches. 22 officers were equipped with batons, shields and helmets.

30 officers equipped with four shields and four stun guns gained control of Zone B and moved the detainees to the common area in the same floor and away from the windows overlooking the recreation area. The detainees were handcuffed using tie clips.

As a result of resistance by some of the detainees it was argued that the stun guns had to be used. The police confirmed that each of the four stun guns had been used once.

A few officers were also equipped with a shotgun armed with rubber pellets. Three “warning shots were shot into the air and clearly off-target”, the board of inquiry said.

“The first shot was a warning shot to deter the detainees from entering into conflict with the Police who entered the recreation area. Following this warning shot the majority of the detainees gave themselves in.

“The second shot was fired after one of the detainees brandished broken wooden sticks and as soon as the same detainee was going to start throwing sticks.

“The third shot was fired after a detainee on the second floor, who had his face covered, threw items out of a window on the second floor, which was directly overlooking the area where the police intervention was taking place.”

One of the detainees was taken to hospital as he was losing consciousness. This detainee was examined at Mater Dei Hospital and discharged an hour or so later.

Four other injured detainees were also taken to hospital later on during that day. Three of them were released since the injuries claimed were not considered serious and required no further treatment.

The fourth was transferred to Mount Carmel Hospital for further psychiatric evaluation. It must be stated that this detainee has a history of such problems. No other injuries requiring hospitalization were reported.

Seven detainees were identified as the principal agitators.

The next day, UNHCR representatives visited Lyster Detention Centre as part of their routine visit. The UNHCR representatives interviewed by the inquiry board reported the atmosphere at the centre as being generally calm. UNHCR representatives argued that no detainee they saw exhibited visible marks of injuries, except for some minor scratches.

Police manhandling

A JRS representative reported that there was a detainee who was suffering from a swollen cheek and another one who had a black eye. An evaluation of the medical report issued by the Detention Service doctor reveals no such injuries by any of the detainees. The JRS representative said that the detainees claimed that Police Officers shouted abuse and pressed their bodies to the ground with their shoes even after the situation was brought under control.

This was confirmed by one of the detainees, who said he was dragged through the stairs of the building. The same detainee said a police officer pressed his shoe against his chest, while he was lying prone on the ground and he (the detainee) turned face up following the shots fired by the police. When asked by the board whether any injuries claimed were visible, he replied in the negative. However, he claimed to have suffered from chest pain.

Another detainee claimed that he was beaten but said the police were not violent. The only sign of injury he showed was what appeared to be a slight bruise to the face and minor marks as a result of the tie-clips used to handcuff him following the riots.

The third detainee said the tie-clips used to handcuff him were too tight. He also claimed that when ordered to lie down he felt chest-pain.

“Medical evidence made available to the Board does not suggest that any of the detainees participating in the disturbances of the 25th February sustained any noteworthy injuries.

“Upon evaluation of the evidence… neither Detention Centre officers nor the Police exercised excessive force in confronting the detainees. Thus, any assertion claiming the use of excessive force during the disturbances occurring at Lyster Detention Centre on Tuesday 25th February 2014 is unfounded.”

 

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