The prime minister of Australia Malcolm Turnbull on Tuesday has announced a Royal Commission, the country's highest-level state sanctioned investigation, into alleged abuse at juvenile detention centers. It all started after a documentary was shown by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). The country's public broadcaster aired footage of teenagers being tear-gassed, stripped and shackled.
The footage was mostly filmed at the Don Dale Youth Detention Center in the Northern Territory city of Darwin. Its release triggered a national uproar, with officials from the local level all the way up to the prime minister denying they had ever previously seen it.
The video showed guards mocking inmates, throwing a boy across a room on to a mattress and covering a teenager's head with a hood and leaving him shackled shirtless to a chair with neck, arm and leg restraints. One of them has had the experience of sitting in one for just nearly two hours with a spit hood over his head.
When the tear gas incident occurred in 2014, officials said guards used the chemical to subdue six teens who had staged a riot. But closed circuit television and video footage filmed by staff at the center appears to show that the tear gas was used after just one teen escaped his cell, while the other five remained locked in their cells. The guards are heard laughing as the teens cough and cry after multiple shots of tear gas were fired into the isolation wing where they were housed. One of the detainees can be heard saying he can't breathe.
"We are determined to get to the bottom of this, we're determined to examine the extent to which there has been a culture of abuse and, indeed, whether there has been a culture of a cover-up," Turnbull told reporters. "Why was this abuse, this mistreatment, unrevealed for so long?"
Human rights activists accused the government of ignoring the issue until it became public because the teens involved were indigenous. Rights groups alleged that officials knew about the footage, which was filmed between 2010 and 2015, for years.
It also raised the issue of the treatment of Aboriginal peoples. The Northern Territory has the highest rate of youth detention in the country and the vast majority of its juvenile detainees are of indigenous Australian descent. Aborigines comprise just three percent of Australia's population but make up 27 percent of those in prison.
"There is no cover-up. They've been fully aware of what's been going on," Priscilla Collins, the CEO of the North Australia Aboriginal Justice Agency told reporters, adding "The reports show it, the children's commissioner's report shows it. They had access to the footage."
The Royal Commission will start case hearings in September. The final report is expected to be released early next year, Turnbull said.