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The case of Ms Dhu

AAP logoAAP 16/12/2016


Miss Dhu, 22, was an Aboriginal woman arrested along with her boyfriend Dion Ruffin and locked up in the Pilbara mining town of Port Hedland on August 2, 2014. She was dead two days later. Her detention was over unpaid fines totalling $3622 that stemmed from several offences, including assaulting a policewoman. Her court record was considered minor.


She was taken to hospital on each of the three days she was at the watchhouse after complaining of severe pain when breathing a couple of hours after being arrested.

Miss Dhu had a broken rib, which the coronial inquest heard was caused by Mr Ruffin physically assaulting her. She did not know the rib was infected and the cause of her increasing agony. Doctors failed to diagnose it on the first two days and did not take her temperature. On her third visit, Ms Dhu was in cardiac arrest, attempts to resuscitate her failed and she died from staphylococcal septicaemia and pneumonia that spread to her lungs.


The death caused community anger and sparked protests, with Aboriginal deaths in custody a long-term controversial issue in Australia. A coronial inquest began more than a year later in late 2015. Disturbing CCTV footage released publicly on Friday was shown at the hearing. It showed police dragging and carrying a limp, barely conscious Ms Dhu to a police van and an officer dropping her, causing her to hit her head. Her treatment by both police and medical staff sparked accusations of institutional racism, with the inquest told she was viewed as faking illness and having drug and behavioural issues. Rural and indigenous health expert Sandra Thompson told the hearing she might have been treated differently had she been a middle class white woman.


Ms Dhu was treated inhumanely and her death could have been prevented if medical staff who treated her three days in a row had diagnosed her properly and given her antibiotics, WA coroner Ros Fogliani found. Ms Fogliani released a suite of recommendations: restricting the ability of police to lock people up over unpaid fines; improving monitoring of prisoners who are unwell and involving Aboriginal staff with detainees. "It is my expectation not to see such treatment of a person held in custody again," she said. Anger remains among Ms Dhu's family and "racism!" and "shame on you!" were shouted in court on Friday.

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