- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 2, 2003

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
SYDNEY, Australia Australia transferred 15 illegal immigrants to a high-security prison and seven asylum seekers were due in court today as the government cracked down following a wave of riots at the country's immigration detention centers.
The immigration department also announced that strip searches would be used more widely at its detention centers to prevent inmates from carrying weapons.
Inmates have set fire to buildings in several centers across the country over the past week in what advocacy groups describe as acts of desperation and protest over the punitive conditions under which they are held.
The conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard has been unflinchingly critical of the protests and has threatened to imprison or deport those found responsible for the violence.
It says the fires have cost the Australian taxpayers more than 8.5 million Australian dollars ($4.76 million U.S.) in damages and would have no impact on its policy of mandatory detention of all asylum seekers.
Federal forensic teams were investigating all the fires with a view to pressing charges that could lead to jail terms or deportation for those responsible, officials said.
Security at detention centers around the country has also been stepped up, and in a letter to detainees at one camp in South Australia, the government threatened to house remaining inmates in "circumstances that are far less comfortable."
One fire at Sydney's Villawood detention center on New Year's Eve escalated into a riot as detainees attempted a mass escape.
Police said up to 90 inmates, most of whom had overstayed their visas and were not seeking asylum, were armed with iron bars and threatened guards.
Fifteen male detainees involved in the riot were sent to two maximum security jails in Sydney, officials said today.
The fires first broke out at the Baxter Detention Center in South Australia, where a wing of the facility was virtually destroyed by the biggest blaze on Sunday.
A series of copycat fires followed at other detention sites, including at Woomera, a center in the south Australian desert that is due to be closed by midyear.
Seven Woomera inmates were taken handcuffed from the facility to police cells in Port Augusta and were expected to appear in a local court today, although officials said it was not clear what charges they would face.
Human rights groups were critical of authorities' decision to send Woomera inmates to jail before they had been charged with any crime.
"This is an outrageous abuse of legal process and of the legal and human rights of the prisoners," said Phil Griffiths, a coordinator with the Australian Refugee Action Committee.


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