Australia’s prime minister has launched a public inquiry after the broadcast of footage of children in detention being abused, hooded and bound in a manner likened to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.
Malcolm Turnbull announced a royal commission hours after the airing of shocking footage showing the treatment of the children at the Don Dale detention facility outside Darwin in the Northern Territory.
The prime minister said that he was “deeply shocked... and appalled” at instances of abuse at the centre, revealed by an investigation by the national broadcaster ABC on Monday.
In one scene that the Four Corners programme compared with images from Guantلnamo Bay or the Abu Ghraib jail in Baghdad, 17-year-old Dylan Voller was shown hooded and tied in a restraint chair for two hours.
Voller — who was featured repeatedly suffering apparent mistreatment at the hands of guards — and five other former Don Dale prisoners are to sue the Northern Territory government.
The chairs are among items recently including in a widened list of “approved restraints” under laws passed by the adminstration.
The footage broadcast in the Four Corners programme was recorded in 2014 and 2015. The programme also examined long-running issues and instances of mistreatment in the Northern Territory youth justice system.
CCTV footage showed the restraint and spit-hooding of one youth, as well as another being stripped and physically held down by guards.
Indigenous youths make up 96% of the young prison population in the Northern Territory, and Indigenous people are overwhelmingly represented in the NT prison system across the board.
Indigenous people make up 30% of the overall population of the NT.
The revelations cast a new spotlight on Australia’s treatment of Indigenous people in general, and also on the NT government’s hardline approach to crime.
Within a couple of hours of the show ending, more than 3,000 people had signed a petition calling for a royal commission.
In announcing the royal commission, Turnbull said the Don Dale centre had to be examined specifically but the inquiry would also consider “whether there is a culture that spreads across the detention system in the Northern Territory, whether it was specific to that centre”.
“The important thing is to get to the bottom of what happened at Don Dale, and there may be other matters connected to that to be looked into.”
The precise terms of the royal commission remain unclear and many commentators and politicians protested that the issue had been prominent in the Northern Territory for some time.
Asked whether the royal commission would consider the Northern Territory justice system generally, Turnbull said inquiries needed a “clear focus so you get the answers to the specific problem”.
Turnbull said children in detention should be treated humanely but did not call for Don Dale to be immediately shut down.
He said the royal commission would be established and report as soon as possible and be conducted jointly with the Northern Territory government.
Patrick Dodson, Labor’s shadow assistant minister for indigenous affairs, said the royal commission should consider law reform because “laws may be part of the problem”, including mandatory sentencing, law and order politics and “lock ‘em up and throw the key away attitudes”.
“We are rapidly reinforcing the notion that we are a nation of jailers — we constantly incarcerate the Aboriginal people.”
Dodson called on the government to take a broader look at the justice system and detention not just the Don Dale centre. He said John Elferink, the Northern Territory’s attorney general, should immediately be stood aside until the inquiry takes place.
Dodson told ABC’s AM radio programme it was “a matter of utter shame” and showed problems revealed by the royal commission into deaths in custody continued.
Staff at the Don Dale juvenile detention facility used teargas on youths who were reportedly attempting to escape on 22 August 2014, although CCTV vision showed only one boy had escaped and of the six boys who were exposed to the gas, five were locked in their cells and not all were misbehaving.
After the programme was broadcast, but before Turnbull announced the royal commission, Ken Wyatt, a federal MP and assistant minister for health, said he was “angry, stunned and ashamed” that such treatment could occur in Australia.
Stephen Gray, an associate of Monash University’s Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, says the revelations over the past 24 hours are an unsurprising outcome of the NT’s “strong law and order agenda and its culture of incarceration”.
“The detention centre images will damage Australia’s international standing, not to mention the Northern Territory’s position as a place that has supposedly emerged from the old cowboy culture.”
The deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, said “this is not Australia”, but insisted the Northern Territory senator and Indigenous affairs minister, Nigel Scullion, would have acted if he had known about it.
Peter O’Brien, lawyer for Dylan Voller and former prisoner Jake Roper, said: “Dylan Voller is in an adult prison, in a form of segregated imprisonment, right now. He needs to be released today … We act for him, and Jake Roper, in a suit against the Northern Territory government for assault, battery and false imprisonment, arising from their treatment within the NT youth detention system. 
“He must be released immediately. The impact of these years of brutalisation must be immediately measured and he needs immediate assistance.”
In a press conference yesterday Adam Giles, the Northern Territory’s chief minister, insisted he had not seen the footage before it was broadcast and watched it with “horror”. He said he was taking over the corrections portfolio from controversial NT attorney general John Elferink and acknowledged there was a “culture of coverup” in the system.

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