Report: PNG man led fatal attack on asylum seeker

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CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia said Monday that its investigation of a riot at an immigration detention camp on Papua New Guinea found that a local Salvation Army officer led a brutal attack in which an Iranian man died.

Papua New Guinea police are investigating the violence at the Australia-run camp on remote Manus Island on Feb. 18 that left 23-year-old asylum seeker Reza Barati with fatal head injuries. Another asylum seeker lost an eye in the violence and a third was shot by police in the buttocks. More than 60 asylum seekers received medical treatment for less serious injuries during three days of violence.

No charges have yet been laid.

The Australian investigation by former public servant Robert Cornall found that sometime after the riot began, the Salvation Army employee, who has not been identified, struck Barati on the back of the head before other assailants, including security staff from Papua New Guinea, kicked him and then dropped a rock on his head.

"These are terrible acts which can have ... absolutely no suggestion of being in any way a proportional response to the risks that were before that center that evening," Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said in releasing the report.

The Salvation Army Australia issued a statement Monday in which it described the suspect as a former employee.

"The Salvation Army condemns any such behavior and to the extent that any criminal actions as alleged are ultimately found by the PNG authorities to have occurred, they were not done with the knowledge or authority of The Salvation Army," the statement said. The group said it would be inappropriate to comment further because of the ongoing investigation.

The statement did not say what job the employee had performed at the camp and a Salvation Army spokesman did not immediately return a call from The Associated Press.

The Salvation Army had an 18-month contract that ended in February to provide asylum seekers on Manus Island with emotional support, humanitarian assistance and general education and recreation programs. It announced in December that the contract would not be extended beyond February.

The violence began with protests involving around 400 of the 1,340 men held in the camp. The men had all attempted to reach Australia by boats from Indonesia. Australia pays Papua New Guinea, its nearest neighbor, to keep them in detention and eventually resettle those who prove to be genuine refugees.

The violence escalated when police stationed outside the camp pushed down a perimeter fence and entered a compound, firing bullets into buildings, the report said.

Papua New Guinea nationals and a few Australian and New Zealand expatriates followed the police in, dragging asylum seekers from their beds and bashing them, the report said.

Some asylum seekers reported buying immunity from bashing with cigarettes, which are currency inside the camp. Other asylum seekers reported having property stolen by intruders.

The report found the violence stemmed from the asylum seekers' anger and frustration at being taken to Papua New Guinea, an impoverished South Pacific island nation. Antagonism had developed between the asylum seekers and the Papua New Guinea nationals employed at the camp and their supporters in the local community, the report found.

Some asylum seekers treated Papua New Guinea nationals employed in the camp "in a disrespectful and racist manner and criticized their country," the report said.

The report has been forwarded to police to use in the criminal investigation.

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