Death in custody of Ms Dhu: calls for fresh Indigenous royal commission

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The 22-year-old Yamatji woman, referred to as Ms Dhu, died in August. Photograph: Change.org

Nationwide protests planned on Thursday after young Yamatji woman dies while in a WA watchhouse for unpaid parking fines

The grandmother of a woman who died in a West Australian watchhouse while being detained for unpaid parking fines has called for a second royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, as protesters prepare for nationwide demonstrations on Thursday.

The 22-year-old Yamatji woman, referred to as Ms Dhu, died in August. She was being held at the South Hedland watch house, “paying down” about $1,000 in unpaid parking fines.

Ms Dhu was taken to hospital from her cell twice after she complained of ill health, but was deemed fit to be returned to custody both times. She reportedly did not see a doctor during either visit. Three days after first being locked up, Dhu was taken to hospital a third time, where she reportedly suffered an apparent heart attack and died in the emergency ward “within about 20 minutes”.

An autopsy report, seen by Guardian Australia, could not determine a cause of death. There was evidence of possibly refractured ribs, a head injury and bleeding around the lungs, among other signs of ill health.

An online petition launched by Ms Dhu’s grandmother, Carol Roe, has so far gathered more than 36,000 signatures.

In it, Roe called for another royal commission, an end to imprisonment as a punishment for unpaid fines, and measures to reduce the number of Aboriginal deaths in custody, including a “timely” coronial inquest, independent inquiries into aspects of the justice system, and 24-hour medical and legal advice coverage.

“It’s devastating to think our politicians have been told what they need to do to stop these deaths happening, but so far have refused to act,” she wrote.

WA has the country’s highest ratio of Indigenous to non-Indigenous prisoners. Nationally, the rate of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander women in prison has risen by 18% in the last year.

The 1991 royal commission into deaths in custody made 339 recommendations, many of which have not been implemented.

The Aboriginal Legal Service in New South Wales has a 24-hour custody notification service – a measure recommended by the 1991 royal commission but enacted in no other states or territories.

Since its implementation, which requires police to notify the service when they arrest an Indigenous person, there has been just one death of an Indigenous person in NSW police custody – Stanley Lord, who a coroner found died of natural causes. Lord was also jailed for driving offences.

Marc Newhouse, the chief executive of the WA deaths in custody watch committee, told Guardian Australia the phone line service, which also allows the lawyers to speak to the detainee and ask after their health, would “absolutely” have resulted in a different outcome in Ms Dhu’s case.

“And not only in her case but in others. It’s got a strong track record and it’s something that’s been called for nationally,” he said.

“We don’t need to wait for a coroner’s inquest to act on some of the things that the family and the watch committee are calling for.”

The family wants regular and “culturally competent communication to families”, something Newhouse said had been severely lacking so far in dealings with the Dhu family and the family of Maureen Mandijarra, whose death in 2012 in a Broome prison has still not been examined by a coroner.

“They still haven’t listed an inquest date. The police have only just handed their report over to the coroner,” Newhouse said. He said he had been told it would not be listed until next year at the earliest.

He thought the extra publicity about the deaths in custody might have prompted police to finally submit their report.

However, “I’ve been getting calls from the family up until last week and they still don’t have any information from the police,” he said. “They just don’t follow it up.”

WA police told Guardian Australia a victim liaison officer was appointed with all investigations conducted by its internal affairs unit.

“The claims about police not making appropriate contact with the respective families of Ms Mandijarra and [Ms] Dhu cannot be commented on given no complaints have been received by WA police in this regard,” the spokesman said.

Protests are planned for Geraldton, Perth, Adelaide, South Hedland, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra on Thursday.

Newhouse said the protests were “just the beginning”.

“This will be an ongoing campaign. We’re not going to leave any stone unturned and the pressure will be on nationally and internationally.”

Source: The Guardian