Michael Atakelt's grieving girlfriend Elsa Giday and father Betachen Atakelt Seyoum.
Michael Atakelt's grieving girlfriend Elsa Giday and father Betachen Atakelt Seyoum.Photo: Craig Sillitoe
The unexplained death of a young Ethiopian man has reignited claims African youths face police harassment and a battle to belong.
A BEAUTIFUL young woman walks up and solemnly greets a middle-aged man standing outside the African Town restaurant in Footscray.
It's a bitterly cold day but the pair stand still, not wanting to speak. They are only beginning to register the recent event that changed their lives. Elsa Giday, 18, and Betachen Atakelt Seyoum have each lost Michael, Elsa's boyfriend of three years and Seyoum's eldest son.
Betachen Atakelt Seyoum with a picture of his son Michael.
Betachen Atakelt Seyoum with a picture of his son Michael. Photo: Craig Sillitoe
Michael Atakelt, 22, was found dead in the Maribyrnong River on July 7. The cause of death is not yet known and the coroner's report is not expected to be released for 12 weeks. Victoria Police has yet to announce whether Michael's death is being treated as a homicide.
The young Ethiopian had only lived in Australia for five years and was yet to become a citizen. But he lived here long enough to make an army of friends.
Seyoum and Elsa received a warm welcome when they finally entered the popular Ethiopian restaurant. Empathy for the grieving father and the young man's girlfriend was palpable. Seyoum's mobile rang non-stop as members of the community called to express sorrow at his loss.
Seyoum has to rely on Michael's friends to help determine his son's last movements. As his mother Askalu Tella was told - when she had to repeatedly file missing-person reports on July 4, 5 and 6 at the Footscray police station - young men who live independently are adults and parents shouldn't worry when they disappear for a few days.
Except that Michael had been missing since June 26. He had been released at 8am from police custody at the Melbourne Custody Centre on the day he vanished. Elsa was the last to see him later in the day. Eleven days later, a fisherman spotted his body in the river and rang police.
When Dr Berhan Ahmed, a senior research fellow at Melbourne University, called a meeting last weekend of the African Think Tank, the advocacy and support group he founded for African Australians, the community turned out in force to mark Michael's death and to discuss the many theories surrounding it. Many openly grieved for a young man known for his bright smile.
More than 250 people, representing local families and community groups, spoke for more than three hours about Michael. They talked about their belief that he was being harassed by some Victoria Police officers before he died, and of their frustration that their children or friends felt targeted while at the same time struggling to stay at school and get jobs.
Several young men said Victoria Police was not adequately investigating serious crimes against African youth. They said that in the past four years 12 youths had been drugged by a man who approached them at local stations offering casual work at Victoria Market. When they got in the car, the man drove to the Maribyrnong River, offering a drink that made them feel dizzy and in some cases pass out. Some said the man tried to push them into the river.
''He has been hassling kids for so many years and nothing happens,'' Seyoum said.
Several of Michael's friends spoke about how hard it is to avoid trouble when refugees and migrants are placed in the Flemington housing commission blocks, in an area among the city's worst trouble spots for drugs and crime.
''I grew up there and it is a tough neighbourhood. It is like we are set up for failure,'' said Daniel Haile-Michael. ''What we really need is help.''
Dr Ahmed said the community was angry about the ''over-policing'' of young Africans. ''People are distrustful and they have real reasons. We know that young Africans have been assaulted and have made complaints to the Office of Police Integrity.''
He reminded those present that complaints dating back to 2006 formed part of a court case alleging racial discrimination by some police officers. Flemington & Kensington Community Legal Centre and law firm Arnold Bloch Leibler are acting on behalf of the claimant against Victoria Police. The case will be heard in the Federal Court next year, with mediation scheduled for September.
After the meeting, Seyoum expressed fears about his son's last day. He said Footscray police officers had told him his son had no injuries when found. But when he, accompanied by friends, identified the body, Michael had a damaged eyeball and facial injuries and his body appeared to be covered in bruises.
Seyoum acknowledged that he was no expert on how water affects a body over several days. But even that information became a source of distress, with one police officer saying Michael's body had been in the water for two days, while another told him seven.
''Where was he for those 11 days?'' Seyoum asked. ''We don't know what happened to Michael from the time he was taken into police custody. This is very traumatic.''
Seyoum asked consultant forensic pathologist Byron Collins to conduct a second autopsy, which took place on July 20. The results are not yet available and Dr Collins said the cause of death would not be known until more tests were completed.
Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Stephen Fontana, who attended the meeting at the North Melbourne Community Centre with two other officers, fronted up to one of the unhappiest crowds a police officer could face. But he partly defused the tension when he told the crowd that the homicide squad had attended the scene where Michael's body was found and the Footscray criminal investigation unit was investigating.
''In relation to Michael's last movement, he was in custody prior to last being seen. We have got the Ethical Standards Department involved in the investigation,'' he said.
Fontana said he understood community concerns about the number of deaths of young African Australians in recent years, which included suicides, and supported an inquest into them. ''We need to figure out if they are due to isolation, mental health issues or lack of support.''
He also said Victoria Police did not condone racism and abuse. ''If evidence is there, we do not support abuse of power from Victoria Police. The vast majority of police genuinely want to work with the community and give it confidence.''
He also confirmed that the way Michael's mother was treated at the Footscray police station was not police protocol.
Askalu Tella, who is divorced from Seyoum, rang Footscray police several times and went to the station on July 4 where she made a missing person report. She said police told her they had no information. When she returned the next day, an officer told her he could not find the previous day's missing person report and she had to file another one. She said the same occurred on July 6.
Needing moral support, Tella took five members of the community with her on July 7, but was again sent home. She said police called her later to come back in, when she was told her only child had been found in the river.
Some at the meeting expressed anger that police did not follow standard practice and go to Tella's house to tell her Michael was dead.
Many young men claimed Michael had been constantly called into the police station for reasons that were unclear to him. They told his father that they believed he had been called in 10 times in June, a claim that Seyoum cannot confirm.
Seyoum said his son was a good person but he got up to the same things as other young people. At times he drank too much. He was the one friends called on to defend them if a fight broke out. He was regarded as quiet and respectful by his elders.
Michael was much loved by Elsa, who has an Ethiopian mother and an Eritrean father and who came to Australia from Sudan five years ago, about the same time that he arrived. When they met, Michael was at Maribyrnong Secondary College, but when they began dating he was studying at Victoria University.
Elsa was too upset to talk about Michael for this article, so she wrote the following: ''What can I say about Mike? There are so many things … Michael was a loving, comforting, kind, friendly person. He was loved by so many. He's really fun and cheerful to be with.'' She wrote that Michael loved his mother and talked about her a lot. ''I've always wanted to meet Mike's mum but I never had a chance to. I'm always going to be there for her.''
One of Elsa's favourite memories is of her modelling debut late last year. ''It was my first time on the catwalk in a fashion parade, the finish to the modelling course I did at Victoria University. He told me he wouldn't be there. I found out he had watched me after the show was finished when he surprised me with a beautiful red rose and gave me a kiss and a hug. It was the best surprise ever. I'll never forget that night.
''Michael always had difficulty believing how I felt about him. I will never stop loving him. Life won't be the same without him.''
Elsa's view of Michael is shared by others. ''Everyone loved him,'' said close friend Hakim Abdulwahab. ''He was a kind, friendly and funny guy.''
In the month before he died, Michael was saddened to learn that his grandfather, a magistrate in Ethiopia, had passed away the previous year.
As well as losing Michael, Abdulwahab, 27, had to deal with another friend committing suicide last week. He recently formed the support group, African Australian Voice. He would like this organisation to grow, partly because he needs help counselling the many youth he knows who have become clinically depressed.
Abdulwahab has also been collating information about the man who has allegedly been frequenting train stations and drugging young people. His cousin and other friends have reported these incidents to Footscray police over four years, but he said the man had not been arrested.
Fontana told The Sunday Age this matter would be fully investigated.
Addulwahab said some of his friends wondered if this man was connected to Michael's death. ''They feel a bit paranoid, wondering if it could have been them,'' he said.
Daniel Haile-Michael said Michael's death made his friends wonder if they would ever belong here. Haile-Michael, now in his 20s, said living in a housing commission apartment at age 14 was a low point, and this was another one.
''Back then there were syringes everywhere, many fights, and one police officer used to park on the basketball court to stop us from playing, only to return later and confiscate iPods. He would say, 'Where are your receipts? These are stolen,' and would take them.''
Tamar Hopkins, a lawyer with the Flemington & Kensington Community Legal Centre who is representing Michael's mother, said similar incidents were reported to her office and now form part of the racial discrimination claim expected to be heard in the Federal Court next year.
She said that in about 2006 police conducted a crime-busting exercise that led to numerous complaints of youth being stopped five times a day to give their name and address and of enduring excessive force and racist taunts when arrested.
Hopkins said she filed 10 of many complaints with the Office of Police Integrity in 2006, which resulted in an ''ethical health check'' of the Flemington police station. Hopkins went to VCAT to get a copy of that report under freedom-of-information legislation but it was not released at a 2007 hearing. The complaints were later found to be unsubstantiated.
The legal centre received many more complaints in 2007 when police launched Operation Square, designed to crack down on burglaries in the area. ''There was a massive increase in police surveillance, with young people photographed in groups. Many felt they couldn't leave their house without being interrogated. They felt they were being treated differently to other people because of their race,'' Hopkins said.
She said there were so many complaints that the legal centre filed a complaint to the Human Rights Commission in late 2008, but no resolution was reached. Instead the matter was filed in the Federal Court in November last year. If matters are not resolved at mediation in September, a six to eight-week trial will commence next year.
Dr Ahmed attributes recent communication problems between some police officers and African-Australian youth to the fact that the young people struggle to find work. Living in cramped conditions, such as housing commission flats, means young people hang out on the street.
''They also wander around the city looking for a job. It puts them under pressure in communicating with police. How many years do they have to walk around to prove they are normal citizens and deserve a job?'' he said.
Dr Ahmed says the youth are grateful for the help they receive, but need more.
More than 700 people are expected to attend Michael's funeral today. Daniel Haile-Michael said Michael's death had to mean something. ''We cry for Mickey today but time will pass and everyone will do their own thing. We have got to do something to make a difference.''
Dr Ahmed said Michael's death was ''one child too many''. ''Who will be next?''