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UN asked to look into the death in custody of Indigenous man David Dungay


Show caption David Dungay’s mother Leetona Dungay said the family is taking her son’s case to the UN to ‘shame our government into action … I want the world to know that Australia is failing to protect the rights of Indigenous people’. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian Indigenous investigations UN asked to look into the death in custody of Indigenous man David Dungay International lawyer Geoffrey Robertson to argue Australia failed to protect Dungay’s right to life and denied family justice for his 2015 death in Long Bay jail Supported by About this content Lorena Allam Thu 10 Jun 2021 05.21 BST Share on Facebook

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International human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson says there has been “no proper investigation” into the 2015 death in prison custody of Aboriginal man David Dungay and will take his case to the United Nations to force Australia to take action.

Robertson announced on Thursday he will lodge the complaint on behalf of the Dungay family at the UN human rights committee in Geneva.

Standing next to Dungay’s mother Leetona, Robertson addressed his comments to her, saying Australia has consistently failed to give justice to Aboriginal people.

“We hoped in 1967 that you would not just count but that your dignity would be respected, and yet here we are, all these years later with the case of your son crying, ‘I cant breathe’ just as George Floyd did, and we have that film of security officials piling into him, that is really showing that his life did not matter.

“Most advanced countries – all advanced countries except Australia – have charters of rights … where you can go to court in the country itself and argue that this was a breach of a right to life,” Robertson said. “But we have to deal with the situation that Australia lacks a bill of rights so we have to go to the UN court, a tribunal of 18 experts, who will objectively consider whether your son’s life mattered sufficiently for there to be proper inquiries afterwards.”

“To this very day we are still failing to get it right, and failing to give justice.

“And justice in its broad sense includes the right to life, and where life is taken by the state, the right to a proper inquiry. That is what we are asking for; it is all we are asking for. Everyone should have that right, and dignity in death – if taken by the state – to have a full and proper inquiry.”

Doughty Street Chambers’ barrister Jennifer Robinson said Australia must be held to account internationally for its failure to implement the recommendations of the royal commission in 1991, and to face “the ongoing crisis of the disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous Australians and the unacceptably high rate of Indigenous deaths in custody”.

“In taking [Leetona’s] case to the UN, we are committed to taking her voice to the international stage, and to raising the systemic failures of the Australian government to take appropriate action in response to the human rights crisis in this country which is Indigenous deaths in custody. We are now 30 years from the royal commission and the problem is getting worse, not better,” she said.

Robinson said the Dungay family will ask the UN to determine whether Australia has complied with its international human rights obligations in the case of his death in prison in 2015.

“But in raising David’s case we are raising the historic and systemic failures of the Australian government to implement the royal commission findings, and to take and to adopt the recommendations from various UN bodies over the past two decades,” Robinson said.

“We hope that with this complaint … the Australian government will take the measures that it needs to, to address this problem.”

David Dungay died in Long Bay prison hospital in 2015, after five guards rushed his cell and restrained him face down for refusing to stop eating a packet of biscuits. Guards dragged him to another cell, then held him face down again, and had him injected with a sedative. Dungay said 12 times that he could not breathe before losing consciousness and dying.

My son had a right to live … And I have the right to demand accountability and justice for what happened to David

Four years later, the coroner found that none of the five guards who restrained Dungay should face disciplinary action and that their conduct was “limited by systemic inefficiencies in training.”

After reviewing the case, a leading criminal barrister, Phillip Boulten SC said the guards’ use of force was “illegal” and carried risks of serious harm, and advised the family that “a reasonable prospect of conviction exists”.

But the New South Wales director of public prosecutions said it could not pursue the matter because it had not been referred by the NSW police force or another statutory body with investigative or inquisitorial powers, such as the coroner’s court.

His mother Leetona Dungay said the family was taking to the international stage to “shame our government into action”.

“I want the United Nations to tell the Australian government to change its ways. I want the United Nations to say loud and clear to this racist government that black lives matter. All I want is justice. I want real justice where the life of an Aboriginal man is worth something.”

At least 474 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in police and prison custody since the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody handed down its final report in 1991.

Guardian Australia has spent the past three years tracking Indigenous and non-Indigenous deaths in custody for the Deaths Inside project.

The first time we published, in August 2018, an exclusive analysis of 10 years of coronial data found 407 Indigenous people had died in police or prison custody since the end of the royal commission in 1991. In 2019, that figure had increased to 424.

By April this year it had increased to 474. At least five of those deaths have happened since the beginning of March this year.

“Leetona Dungay should not have to go all the way to Geneva to seek justice,” the Dungay family’s lawyer George Newhouse said.

“The NSW government can still take action. The attorney general and the premier must establish an investigation, and they must listen to the 113,000 people who have signed the petition calling for justice and accountability. There must be a pathway for families of those who have died in custody to seek accountability.”