Lisa Owen: It's been almost a month since Rob Peihopa died in Sydney's Villawood Detention Centre. The New Zealand citizen had lived in Australia since 1989, but his visa was revoked at the end of a two-year prison sentence under those tough new immigration rules that we've heard so much about. Now, authorities remain tight-lipped about exactly what happened to Peihopa, but his family have decided to speak out. I spoke to his mother, Hera Peihopa, earlier and began by asking her what she now knows about her son's death.
Hera Peihopa: What I've been told is… initially, was that he'd been to the gym, and he'd gone to sit down, and he'd collapsed. That's initially what they told me. After that, I've had no real details about the circumstances of how he died.
So there has been speculation that it was a heart attack. Is that right, or do you now know that he didn't have a heart attack?
Initially they did suggest he had a heart attack, but I know now, after I spoke with the coroner's office, that that was not the case at all.
So what did the coroner's office tell you, Hera?
That they needed to take- to have an autopsy on his- on Robert to investigate further. I'm sorry. They did the autopsy and found that he did not have a heart attack, but they needed to do further investigation.
So you don't accept the suggestions he died of natural causes? You now know he didn't die of natural causes.
Yeah. Yes. Yes, that's correct. I know that he did not die of a heart attack.
Was there evidence of a fight?
Yes, there was. There was evidence. When I saw his body three days after he died, I saw evidence of a fight. He had injuries on his face, bruising, and he had injuries behind his head.
So what do you think happened to him?
I think he- I think he- I suspect that he was attacked by others. Who they might be is unknown to me, but I don't believe it was one person. I believe it was more than one.
Can you tell us a little bit about your son, let us know what he was like?
He was a really big-hearted guy. He was a family man. He cared about his family, his children. He wanted the best for them, and he did give them the best when he could. He was a very compassionate person. He would help others when they were- they needed help or he felt they were having difficulties. He was a compassionate person.
The thing is this is a Serco-run detention centre, so aren't there security cameras or any CCTV footage of what happened here?
I've been told that the security cameras- the vision was not helpful. I've been told that the lighting in the general area, that lighting actually affected the cameras. They created glare, they created reflection, and that caused the images that they could look through… They were unclear. They were distorted.
So who told you that? Who told you that?
I was told that by the investigating detectives.
Okay. So, who do you blame for this, Hera?
Well, I blame Serco. I blame them. They are the security company who are responsible for our boys. You know, that's their job – to protect them; you know, to keep them safe; to, you know, monitor just what's going on in the detention centres. I certainly put it squarely on Serco, absolutely.
So they let your son down?
Yes, they did. They let him down badly.
Was there ever any evidence before this happened that he was being mistreated in any way?
No. He did not complain that he had been mistreated while he was in Villawood, not prior to providing his application. The frustration came in after they had done their paperwork around no further communication, not feeling that their concerns were attended to. Just really left to ponder and wonder about just what was going with their applications.
So, can you explain to us why Robert was in Villawood?
Robert had served two years- approximately two years in jail, and these were related to traffic offences. Two weeks prior to his supposed release, he was told that his visa had been revoked and that he would go directly to Villawood, and from there he needed to follow certain procedures with regards to if he wanted to have his visa reviewed and the reasons why.
So those traffic offences, that was a car chase, was it? A police car chase.
Yes, it was. Yes.
And so he had served that time. He's due for release, and then he's told that his visa to stay in Australia has been revoked. So why didn't he just accept deportation? What made him want to stay in Australia?
Well, he'd been living in Australia since he was 16. I mean, he came here in 1989, so he'd been here for a long time with his family, with me, and then later he was in a relationship, and he had children here. He had three children. So he had lots of reasons to want to stay here, and they wanted their father to remain here. They didn't want to lose him. They absolutely adored one another, his children, and he did them. I mean, family is a huge reason why he wanted to stay here, and also he was in a new relationship.
So, what do you make of the way the Australian Government is treating New Zealanders like Robert? Because some people will say that he committed a crime and Australia had the right to kick him out. But what do you think of the way these people are being treated, these New Zealanders?
Well, I feel that they're being treated unfairly. They've been bundled up and treated like they've made major crime- done major crime, and a lot of them, that's not the case at all. They've had relatively short sentences. If they happen to go over 12 months, even if it's 13 months, they automatically get swept into this new law, and they're bundled off into a detention centre to be deported.
So where do you think the New Zealand Government's been in all of this?
I think they've been sitting on their hands. I don't think they've been helpful at all, not to these detainees. They haven't done- A lot of them have not done major crimes at all.
Has your family had any support from government agencies in New Zealand at all?
Mainly to tell me what procedures and how they work. I've not found them very helpful to me at all.
So what more should they be doing for these detainees, do you think?
Well, I think that they- with the detainees, I would really believe that their- any appeals that they put forward, they should be considered. I really do. I think that if they've got good family reasons why they should be here, they should be given some consideration, not just totally overlooked, those long connections with Australia and with families who are broken-hearted, and just thrown out of the country. I think that they've- you know, they've just bundled them up and just treated them like they're criminals. Well, I know they've done wrong, but they're not serious. A lot of them are not serious crimes.
You've said that Serco should've kept your son safe. As a mother, having suffered this with your family, how are you feeling about this situation?
Well, I'm... I'm just devastated. It's been a huge loss to me. I've continued to grieve even more so because of the extraordinary circumstances that he's died in surrounding his death. It should not have happened. It really should not, and, you know, the police enquiries have not been encouraging. I'm in disbelief, and the coroner's office, who are the experts that do their work on a daily basis, they've just informed me not to expect a report on Robert's death for many months. So, you know, I'm devastated about- His children are heart-broken. You know, to have this happen, the loss of their father, is huge. It's profound in their lives and his family- and his partner's life. I mean, it's been life-changing for them forever, for all of us.
Thank you, Hera, for joining us this morning. We appreciate your time.
Thank you. Thanks for listening.
Well, we asked the New South Wales Police and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection for more information about what happened to Robert Peihopa. They declined to comment. The New South Wales Coroner's Office says an inquest will be held, but the date's not yet set.
Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz