Sunday, December 5, 2004

BRISBANE, Australia — Thomas Keneally, the Australian author whose book inspired the movie “Schindler’s List,” led a protest in Sydney Wednesday to win the release of Sri Lankan asylum seekers held in detention for up to three years.

Mr. Keneally, who won the Booker Prize for the novel originally titled “Schindler’s Ark,” began his peaceful demonstration with members of the Sydney PEN Center, an association of literary writers and editors, against the detention of a Sri Lankan businessman and poet, Sarath Amarasinghe, and several of his compatriots, who are on a hunger strike.

Mr. Keneally sat outside Sydney’s Immigration Department all night with writer Rosie Scott and another colleague to show solidarity with Mr. Amarasinghe.

The last time Mr. Keneally led a similar protest, 500 people turned out. That was in 2002, when he taped his mouth shut in support of detainees at the now-closed Woomera detention center. The detainees had sewn their lips together as part of a failed hunger strike.

In the past year, however, the plight of detention center inmates has largely disappeared from the political agenda and press coverage in Australia.

Asylum seekers weren’t even mentioned in the October federal election, unlike the 2001 vote where Prime Minister John Howard’s hard stance on border protection and boat people won him another three-year mandate and, later, criticism from some for the government’s policy of mandatory detention.

Since the government started taking a hard line on illegal immigration and people-smuggling issues, the number of boat people coming to Australia has declined.

Mr. Keneally, 69, who has authored more than two dozen books, has gained a reputation in Australia for his eloquent attacks on detention. He became involved with asylum seekers about four years ago when researching one of his books, “The Tyrant’s Novel.”

“We can’t legitimately call ourselves a free country when we do this,” said Mr. Keneally, who is hoping Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone will listen to the request to release Mr. Amarasinghe, who is a member of PEN.

“We began as a great outdoor penal colony and now we’re re-creating a penal colony for people who’ve had the gall to seek asylum with us.”

The government, however, maintains that after assessments by the Department of Immigration, none of those involved in the hunger strike has been deemed to be a refugee in need of protection.

“The detainees would be mistaken to believe their action will assist them remain in Australia,” Mrs. Vanstone said. “The department does not respond to these sorts of actions.”

Two of the 11 Sri Lankans at the Baxter detention center in southern Australia were hospitalized Tuesday.

Mr. Amarasinghe left Sri Lanka three years ago after receiving death threats connected with his membership in an opposition party, PEN said.

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