Sydney: When Peter Clarke’s family wanted to seek justice over what they described as his “appalling and inexcusable” treatment in custody, they turned to a tiny campaign group working tirelessly for indigenous Australians.
Led by founders Ray Jackson and Don Clark, with a dozen core volunteers, the Indigenous Social Justice Association (ISJA) has been dealing with death-in-custody cases like Clarke’s for more than 15 years.
Its work has been largely unsung and underfunded, toiling in relative obscurity to bring justice for the families of Aboriginal men and women who die under the watch of authorities.
That anonymity may soon be a thing of the past, with the award this week of a prestigious international human rights prize for its work.
On December 10 — UN Human Rights Day — the ISJA will collect one of five annual awards worth a total of 70,000 euros (Dh349,209) given by France’s National Consultative Council on Human Rights (Commission Nationale Consultative des Droits de l’Homme — CNCDH) in Paris.
“We are quite sure that no government in Australia, at any level, would have ever even entertained the thought that the works of ISJA warranted any praise or recognition,” said Clark, 65, who added that, apart from rare donations “mostly it [funding] comes out of our own pockets”.
There have been more than 450 indigenous deaths in custody since 1979-80 and little progress in the pursuit of justice, says Jackson.
“Nobody has been found guilty, except the victims,” Jackson said. “There’s a culture of protection.”
The case of Peter Clarke is one of the latest taken up by the ISJA since it was founded in 1997.
Clarke, 56, was dying of emphysema and lung cancer when he was admitted to hospital, where his family say he had one leg handcuffed to his bed and was watched over by a prison officer.
An indigenous Australian, he had spent more than three years in a Northern Territory jail for possessing and supplying cannabis. He had been due for parole a week before he died in hospital in Alice Springs in April 2012.
The coroner’s report into his death in custody is expected in January.
Clarke’s family, from the Arabana people, are seeking answers to what eldest daughter Kylie called “appalling and inexcusable” treatment.
“His family are desperate to get some justice and it very much depends really on what the coroner is going to say,” said Jackson.
Jackson, 72, began campaigning in 1987, the same year the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody was set up amid growing public concern after 16-year-old John Pat died on September 28, 1983, at Roebourne police station in Western Australia.
An autopsy found he had sustained a fractured skull and tearing of the brain.
“Thirty years on from John Pat’s shocking death and Aboriginal people are still dying in jails,” said Amnesty International indigenous rights campaigner Rodney Dillon on the anniversary, calling the situation a “national disgrace”.
Amnesty acknowledges official efforts to improve indigenous lives, but says Aboriginal peoples still face “widespread and systemic disadvantage and discrimination”.
According to experts, ISJA stands out due to its commitment to Australia’s disenfranchised.
“It’s unique in the Australian context because it not only devotes energy to social justice in indigenous matters but also in broader terms to immigrants and prisoners,” says Macquarie University associate professor Joseph Pugliese, who specialises in social justice.
“They offer a platform [for all people] to give voice to their grief and vent their trauma and call for justice.”
Pugliese spoke of the “staggering statistics” relating to indigenous people, be it life expectancy, suicide, poverty.
They make up nearly one third of the prison population but under three percent of Australia’s 23 million people. Indigenous youths account for 58 per cent of the total juvenile incarceration rate.
ISJA’s Clark will accept the prize in Paris alongside Sudan’s Sabah, for a project on protecting children’s rights in prisons; the Civic Assistance Committee which defends women persecuted in Dagestan and Chechnya, Russia; Grandir Dignement, for defending children’s rights in prisons in Madagascar; and the Chadian Association of Non-Violence for its aid project for displaced families.