Treatment breaches human rights law

THE Federal Government's treatment of suspected underage people smugglers has breached international human rights law, the nation's human rights commissioner said on Friday.

Outgoing Australian Human Rights Commission president Catherine Branson, QC, made the indictment against the Attorney-General's Department, the Federal Police and the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions on Friday.

The commission released a report detailing a failure of Attorney-General Nicola Roxon's department to review independent literature on the techniques used to assess whether suspected people smugglers were minors.

Ms Branson said that between 2008 and 2011 the three government agencies responsible for assessing the age of 28 suspected people smugglers "engaged in acts and practices that led to the contraventions of fundamental rights".

"It seems likely that some of those acts and practices are best understood in the context of heavy workloads, difficulties of investigation and limited resources," she said.

"Others, however, seem best explained by insufficient resilience in the face of political and public pressure to 'take people smuggling seriously'; a pressure which seems to have contributed to a high level of scepticism about statements made by young crew on the boats carrying asylum seekers to Australia that they were under the age of 18 years."

But Ms Roxon defended her department, saying the government already had reviewed 28 cases of suspected underage people smugglers and was already improving the assessment processes

"Minors do not belong in adult gaols, which is why the government significantly changed age-determination policy last year.

"These changes now see minors returned to Indonesia as soon as possible," Ms Roxon said.

"Australia now has a fair system in place for assessing the age of people smuggling crew who claim to be minors, where all individuals who plausibly claim to be minors have their cases assessed on an individual basis."

But while a key part of the government age assessments, wrist x-rays, was condemned by Ms Branson's report, it is still being used as an option by Federal Police if the person requests it - with police instead relying on the country-of-origin to confirm age.

Ms Branson said she hoped that her inquiry would also lead to "mature" reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of the criminal justice system more generally.

"The inquiry has revealed that this system may be insufficiently robust to ensure that the human rights of everyone suspected of a criminal offence are respected and protected," she said.

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