The mother of a young refugee who died mysteriously on Nauru has formally requested a public inquiry into her son’s death, backed by lawyers who say a coroner is obliged to investigate following a series of stories from BuzzFeed News.
Rakib Khan was just 24 when he died at Nauru’s hospital just over four years ago as doctors prepared to airlift him to Australia for urgent medical treatment.
A BuzzFeed News investigation published earlier this year revealed that Khan’s complaints of chest pain were initially not taken seriously. He was eventually treated for pulmonary embolism, but an autopsy later concluded there was no evidence of that condition and that it was unclear what had killed him.
In April, lawyers representing Khan’s mother, Hazera Begum, wrote to Queensland’s state coroner to formally request an inquest. Khan’s death has never been the subject of a public or independent investigation.
According to Begum’s lawyers, Queensland has jurisdiction to conduct an inquest because Khan’s body was sent to Brisbane before being repatriated to his family in Bangladesh, a fact unearthed by BuzzFeed News.
Relying on the advice of senior counsel, the 15-page letter also argues that Khan was on the way to Brisbane when he died, and that his death was both related to healthcare and a death in custody. These factors make it a “reportable” death under Queensland law and mean a coroner must investigate, the lawyers say.
“Mrs Begum is pleading for an investigation into her son’s death and for Queensland to conduct an inquest. This would not only provide her with answers but may contribute to ensuring that her son’s death was not in vain,” the letter says.
“She would like to see that recommendations be made to ensure that detainees at regional processing facilities receive appropriate medical attention and do not suffer the same fate as her son.”
Khan’s brother Ashraf Uddin told BuzzFeed News he was “so tired, so tired” of fighting for answers about his brother’s death. He said that when he returns to his village, people laugh at him about Khan’s death, joking that Khan fled Bangladesh to avoid being killed for his homosexuality only to end up killed by the Australian government. Uddin said he wants a report to establish a reason for Khan’s death and show it to his tormentors.
Begum spends most of her day every day in front of her son’s grave, Uddin said. “She always says to me, I have one question, I want a judgement in my lifetime,” he said. “Physically she is very ill, very weak.”
The Australian government has previously rebuffed suggestions it should hold an inquiry into Khan’s death, saying that Khan was on Nauru when he died and that it is a matter for that country.
Begum’s lawyers argue Khan’s death needs to be investigated because he died after seeking medical treatment at a regional processing facility, was treated by Australian doctors there, and died while being medically transferred to Australia for emergency treatment. As well, they contend the Australian government should have reported the death at the time Khan’s body was moved through Brisbane on its way to Bangladesh.
The letter also cites the fact that Khan’s cause of death remains unknown despite an autopsy, and that there are conflicting accounts of events leading up to his death.
Representatives from Australia’s home affairs department were asked about Khan’s death at a Senate Estimates session in March, taking on notice a question about what inquiries the Australian government made with Nauru about the death.
In a response published earlier this month, the department said it “engaged with the government of Nauru” in 2016 and 2017, and pointed to the fact it had engaged a forensic pathologist to conduct a post-mortem.
“The department was provided a copy of the post-mortem report on 2 December 2016,” the response said. “The cause of death was unascertained.”
Begum’s lawyers, from the National Justice Project, declined to comment to BuzzFeed News because the matter is currently before the coroner. In the letter, they say it is in the public interest for the coroner to investigate.
“Mr Khan’s death raises serious issues around the medical treatment of detainees held [on] Nauru and recommendations made by you will have the public benefit of potentially preventing future deaths [like] that of Mr Khan from happening again,” it reads. Around 200 refugees and asylum seekers remain on Nauru.
The state coroner, Terry Ryan, previously conducted a public inquiry into the death of Hamid Khazaei, who was detained on Manus Island. His 2018 report included a recommendation that the Commonwealth government establish and fund a mechanism to ensure deaths of refugees and asylum seekers held offshore would be the subject of independent inquiries by judges.
The government later declined to follow the suggestion.