When Peter Clarke’s family wanted to seek justice over what they described as his “appalling and inexcusable” treatment in custody, they turned to a tiny campaign group working tirelessly for indigenous Australians.
Led by founders Ray Jackson and Don Clark, with a dozen core volunteers, the Indigenous Social Justice Association (ISJA) has been dealing with death-in-custody cases like Clarke’s for more than 15 years.
Its work has been largely unsung and underfunded, toiling in relative obscurity to bring justice for the families of Aboriginal men and women who die under the watch of authorities.
That anonymity may soon be a thing of the past, with the award this week of a prestigious international human rights prize for its work.
Tomorrow — UN Human Rights Day — the ISJA will collect one of five annual awards worth a total of 70,000 euros (US$95,100) given by France’s National Consultative Council on Human Rights.
The winners were announced on Nov. 29.
“We are quite sure that no government in Australia, at any level, would have ever even entertained the thought that the works of ISJA warranted any praise or recognition,” said Clark, 65, who added that, apart from rare donations “mostly it [funding] comes out of our own pockets.”
There have been more than 450 indigenous deaths in custody since the 1979-1980 financial year and little progress in the pursuit of justice, Jackson said.
“Nobody has been found guilty, except the victims,” Jackson said. “There’s a culture of protection.”
Clarke, 56, was dying of emphysema and lung cancer when he was admitted to hospital, where his family say he had one leg handcuffed to his bed and was watched over by a prison officer.
An indigenous Australian, he had spent more than three years in a Northern Territory jail for possessing and supplying cannabis.
He had been due for parole a week before he died in hospital in Alice Springs in April last year.
The coroner’s report into his death in custody is expected next month.
Clarke’s family, from the Arabana people, are seeking answers to what eldest daughter Kylie called “appalling and inexcusable” treatment.