A Brisbane barrister is calling for a judicial inquiry into the plight of young Indonesians in adult prisons in Australia.
Up to 100 people who say they are children are in jails around Australia awaiting trial under people smuggling laws.
Under Federal government policy only adult crew members on boats bringing asylum seekers face charges while minors are sent home to their families.
Barrister Mark Plunkett has been enlisted by the Indonesian government to help identify cases and has launched a blistering attack on Julia Gillard’s government, accusing it of being party to institutionalised child abuse.
“The Commonwealth is cruel to children. This is institutionalised child abuse by the law enforcement authorities who won’t do their basic duties and find the mums and dads,” he said.
Plunkett is concerned by the jailing of teenage boys who were recruited to work as cooks and deckhands on boats bringing asylum seekers from Indonesia.
The Federal Police use a wrist X-ray technique to establish the age of people in detention who claim they are teenagers, but it is widely discredited by doctors and the courts.
Plunkett secured the release of three teenagers in July and says the X-ray method is “crank science”.
He says where there is doubt about their age, they should be sent home. That they are not is grounds for a judicial inquiry into what he calls “neglect of duty” by the Commonwealth.
“It’s led the Commonwealth into a grievous error of locking up, by its own admission, 33 children which have been released and what defence lawyers are saying are possibly another 50 children being held in adult jails alongside sex offenders, paedophiles and murderers,” he said.
Federal Police have been instructed by the minister for Home Affairs to make more thorough attempts to get information about a person in custody from their homes and families.
A similar push is coming from the Indonesian side, with the chair of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation in Australia on a fact-finding mission.
Under Erna Ratnaningsih’s direction, legal aid lawyers in both countries will begin cooperating to fast track efforts to locate documentation that proves the age of those in detention.
She says even in the poorest villages in Indonesia where there is no birth registration, there are still ways to verify the age of individuals, starting with records of primary school attendance.
She says all Australian officials need to do is ask the parents how old their children are.
“I think the Australian governments would know about the culture of Indonesian people, how they are living in the remote areas,” she said.
Indonesia’s president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will have a chance to raise the issue with Ms Gillard this weekend.
The pair are scheduled for a face-to-face meeting after the conclusion of the East Asia Summit in Bali. -By Peter Lloyd and staff