Stricken with leprosy, detainee takes cyanide - report

Stricken with leprosy, detainee takes cyanide - report

June 6, 2013   09:00 pm

A Sri Lankan asylum-seeker who committed suicide in Sydney’s Villawood detention centre by consuming a fatal quantity of cyanide had been diagnosed just months earlier with leprosy.

The death in 2011 of the Sri Lankan asylum-seeker known as Victor triggered a system-wide search for cyanide within the detention network.

The Australian has learned that Victor - not his real name - died of acute cyanide poisoning on October 26, 2011, in the residential housing block of Villawood, a low-security section of the western Sydney facility.

Multiple sources have told The Australian a subsequent search by detention centre staff uncovered a powder determined to be cyanide, a poison commonly issued to members of the defeated Tamil Tigers terror group to prevent their capture.

An Immigration Department spokesman yesterday confirmed Victor, 27, had been diagnosed with leprosy, also known as Hansens Disease.

“We have had a total of two cases, including this client, diagnosed in detention with leprosy,” the spokesman said. “Neither of the cases were linked.”

The spokesman said staff at Villawood were briefed on Victor’s condition, as were other detainees who had had contact with him. “The client himself was managed to ensure that not only he got the appropriate treatment and didn’t pose a risk to other detainees,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the NSW Health Department confirmed last night authorities were alerted about a case of leprosy at Villawood in June 2011. The spokeswoman said the risk of person-to-person contact was deemed “very low”.

“Transmission requires close and prolonged contact and it is an extremely rare disease in Australia,” the spokeswoman said.

Victor’s bizarre death prompted a crackdown on contraband within detention centres. Serco staff and Immigration case officers were ordered to be on alert for the deadly poison, which kills within minutes of consumption.

The Australian has been told staff were advised to pay close attention to objects such as religious icons where the powder could be stowed. Victor appears to have died within minutes of consuming the poison.

A NSW Ambulance incident report from the night of Victor’s death says: “The inspector was advised it was a suspected cyanide poisoning.”

When The Australian sought to publish that fact in November 2011, supporters of Victor unsuccessfully sought an injunction preventing publication.

Victor, who arrived by boat in October 2009, was known to be in a highly fragile emotional state before his death.

Months earlier, The Australian understands he had been diagnosed with leprosy, a chronic, but curable, bacterial illness still prevalent in parts of Asia.

Detained at Villawood since March 2010, Victor had been involved in rooftop protests and had undergone torture and trauma counselling sessions.

He is understood to have confessed to being a member of the Tamil Tigers, a terrorist group that was crushed by the Sri Lankan military in May 2009. It is unclear what role he played with the Tigers.

The Tamil Tigers, or Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam, produced some of the most vicious terrorists of the 20th century. However, many members worked in administrative roles helping to run the Tamil sub-state that existed in Sri Lanka until 2009.

Towards the end of the conflict, many of the organisation’s members were conscripts who had been forced to fight.

Victor’s association with the LTTE complicated his situation. Although he had been found to be a refugee and considered for community release, ASIO advised against it. Then Australian immigration minister Chris Bowen said Victor’s was a “long, involved, complex and protracted case”.

“I understand people’s frustration, but the government cannot and will not compromise on matters of national security,” Mr Bowen said in October.

At issue is how Victor managed to gain access to cyanide in what is supposed to be Australia’s most secure detention facility.

It is understood authorities suspect Victor probably smuggled it in from Sri Lanka, hiding it from border security staff when he arrived on Christmas Island.

The Immigration spokesman said authorities took the presence of contraband in the detention network “seriously, especially contraband that could lead to death or serious injury, such as a poison or chemical agents”. - The Australian

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