Man seeks asylum away from Australia

The Federal Government was blindsided by the case of the first known refugee from Australia, who found asylum overseas on the grounds that authorities blew his cover as a crime gang informant then failed to protect him.

Key points:

  • Before Stevan Utah fled Australia in 2006, he was paid by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) to infiltrate the Bandidos motorcycle gang
  • In 2017, Mr Utah became the first known refugee from Australia when Canada gave him asylum on the basis that authorities in his home country blew his cover, then failed to offer him adequate protection
  • Freedom of Information documents show that neither the ACIC nor Australian diplomatic officials knew anything about this until it was revealed by the ABC

The first that local authorities knew of Canada granting refugee protection to former Australian Crime Commission (ACC) informant Stevan Utah was when contacted by the ABC almost a year later, documents obtained by the ABC reveal.

In a damning 2017 ruling, Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) found Australia failed to offer Mr Utah adequate protection amid a “broader pattern due to corruption, ineptitude and structural difficulties”.

The IRB accepted evidence there were murder contracts placed on Mr Utah’s life after his cover was blown during a national operation against bikie gangs.

Mr Utah’s Canadian lawyer, Russ Weninger, told the ABC last year the case “should be embarrassing” to Australian authorities and was a warning to other police informants “they could end up dead”.

Australian authorities oblivious to asylum status in Canada

Documents obtained under Freedom of Information (FOI) show both Australian diplomatic officials and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission — known as the ACC when it paid Mr Utah to infiltrate the Bandidos outlaw motorcycle club — were oblivious to him gaining asylum in Canada in September 2017.

The ACIC has refused to publicly confirm Mr Utah’s involvement in its “human intelligence source” program.

But documents show Government officials discussing the “sensitive nature of Mr Utah’s relationship with the ACIC”.

The ACIC would not publicly address “inaccuracies” that it claimed were in the ABC report because of that “sensitive” relationship, an official said in an email.

The documents also show that Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton was briefed by ACIC chief executive Chris Dawson about Mr Utah’s case on the day the ABC broke the story.

But Mr Dutton refused to comment publicly on the matter. Photo: Mr Dutton was briefed by the ACIC about Mr Utah’s case on the day the ABC broke the story. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)

Australian bureaucrats in the dark about the case

The day after Mr Dutton’s briefing, Department of Home Affairs (DHA) secretary Mike Pezzullo sought more information about what his department knew about the case.

One of his directors asked if the ACIC had kept in touch with Mr Utah since he fled Australia, but was told there needed to be “executive approval [in the ACIC] to release any of the operational details”. Photo: Mike Pezzullo sought more information about what his department knew about the case. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)

The Home Affairs official asked: “Wondering if the ACIC is tracking the media around the former Bandidos guy granted refugee status in Canada?”

“Secretary is interested in what the Dept knew about this — short answer is nothing,” the director of the department’s Americas policy division said.

“Keen to understand whether the ACIC has had any ongoing contact?”

The ACIC’s strategic policy manager replied: “I will advise the ACIC CEO that the Secretary is interested in this matter … let me know the level of interest from the secretary.”

In an email the day after the ABC story, the Home Affairs official tells DFAT: “I’ve also been in touch with ACIC, who confirm the first they knew of Canadian IRB decision was late Fri 17/8 when contacted by ABC for comment on the article.”

“Also noted the ABC article had some inaccuracies, but given the sensitive nature of Mr Utah’s relationship with the ACIC, will not be addressing these.”

The same Home Affairs official asked the Department of Foreign affairs and Trade (DFAT) to reach out to the High Commission in Canada on Mr Utah’s case, saying Mr Pezzullo was “seeking advice/reporting from Post”.

“The only information we have is sourced from the [ABC] article,” the DHA official said.

“Grateful if you could advise whether this case has previously come to our attention (subtext: if not, why not?).”

Photo: The ACC paid Mr Utah to infiltrate the Bandidos outlaw motorcycle club as an informant. (ABC News: Henry Zwartz)

‘Not been made aware of the case prior to media coverage’

The Australian High Commission in Ottawa told Canberra in a cable it had “not been made aware of the case prior to the media coverage”.

Canadian immigration authorities had not approached Australian officials for “input” before the decision and declined to comment when contacted by diplomats after the ABC report, the cable from Ottawa said.

This was “consistent with Canada’s approach to privacy and the gravity in which the Canadian Government holds the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” it said.

The High Commission was left to confirm from IRB’s published statistics “on asylum claims based on country of alleged persecution … that in 2017 one claim was accepted under Australia”.

After the ABC approached the office of then-Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop for comment, a DFAT official responded to her media adviser with “advice from our legal team”.

“Their view is the detail of this inquiry was to direct the query to the [Attorney-General’s Department] and [the Department of Home Affairs] and possibly the Queensland state authorities … for some defensive points on the strength of its witness protection system etc”, the DFAT official said in an August 17 email.

‘No other measure to protect him was available’

In a written judgment obtained by the ABC, IRB member Jodie Schmalzbauer found Mr Utah had “established with ‘clear and convincing evidence’ the state’s inability to provide operational adequate protection from the threat against him”. Photo: Mr Utah said last year his betrayal by authorities was not by current serving members of policing agencies. (Supplied)

Ms Schmalzbauer said the IRB had “no reason to discount” Mr Utah’s account that the ACC had told him “he was done from the program … and no other measure to protect him was available”.

She accepted that authorities were “either unwilling or unable to provide protection to him at that time” and had since indicated “he has no access to relocation or any other form of witness protection”.

Mr Utah told the ABC last year that his betrayal by authorities was “not the cause of current serving members of policing agencies … nor did the sitting [Federal] Government do this to me, but the institutions they currently serve most certainly did”.

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