The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Australia has detained this Iranian refugee for years. Now, his ‘courageous’ cartoons shine a light on inhumane treatment.

Manus Camp, by Eaten Fish. (Courtesy of Cartoonists Rights Network International)

JUST OUTSIDE Washington, the Cartoonists Rights Network International organization has fought for decades on behalf of artists the globe over who have been terrorized, brutalized and sometimes long incarcerated. But the human rights group’s latest case may be its harshest, and thus its most heartbreaking yet.

A young Iranian national whose first name is Ali, and who goes by the pen name Eaten Fish, is interned in the Manus Island refugee detention camp in Papua New Guinea, which is funded and overseen by the government of Australia, CRNI says. He has reportedly been detained for about three years and has drawn cartoons depicting inhumane treatment.

“And in these cartoons, his characters are asking just such simple, humane questions,” CRNI Executive Director Robert Russell tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “His cartoons will someday he recognized as important, world-class chronicles of the worst human behavior since the World War II concentration camps.”

CRNI says the United Nations has deemed the camp’s practices “cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment,” and that “they break the U.N. Convention Against Torture to which Australia is a signatory.” And from within that camp has come Eaten Fish’s editorial documentation, for which CRNI has just honored the artist with its 2016 Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award, which traditionally helps focus attention on an imperiled artist’s plight.

“Eaten Fish has been able to keep up a stream of cartoons documenting the unspeakable abuses and excesses of the guards and administrators of the camp,” CRNI says. “For this, he has been the subject of beatings, deprivation of food, and even worse degrading treatment by the guards.”

Ahead of the presentation of the award — which will be accepted Sept. 24 by Australian poet and human rights worker Janet Galbraith (founder of Writing Through Fences) at an Association of American Editorial Cartoonists ceremony in Durham, N.C. — The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs caught up with Russell to discuss Eaten Fish’s plight and future:

MICHAEL CAVNA: So according to Ali’s accounts, he has been in detention for more than three years now, most of that time on Manus Island. What do we know about the specifics of his case? Some reports say that he has been sick and needs special medical attention, and that he has been the target of violence and suffers from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder that results in self-wounding as well. What have you been able to establish or confirm?

ROBERT RUSSELL: We work closely with an outfit in Australia that is monitoring him and other creative writers and other kinds of arts detainees in the Manus camp. We can confirm all of what you say here.

MC: How did you come to discover Ali’s story, and did you immediately try to find out through your network of contacts the details of his case?

RR: If I recall correctly, we went to a Twitter feed and then started picking up on the links in the tweet. From there, it was easy to spread out and connect with other human rights NGOs in Australia who broke the story some time ago.

MC: Has anyone at CRNI been in direct communication with Ali?

RR: This isn’t something I’d like to comment on right now. As Eaten Fish’s — excuse me if I call him Mr. Fish — situation improves, or as more pressure is brought to bear on the Australian government to end these rendition/incarceration camps, it will be easier to be in touch with him.

[Editor’s note: This cartoonist’s name is not to be confused with “Mr. Fish," the pen name of the American cartoonist Dwayne Booth.]

MC: What do we know about Ali’s personal backstory? We hear he is a 25-year-old Iranian refugee. … Why is he being detained?

RR: If you are a refugee fleeing some deadly situation, and you decide to go to Australia because it seems to be such a fair-minded and freedom-loving place, and if you arrive by boat, you are in very deep trouble. Boat arrivals are immediately consigned to these rendition-type of detention camps all far offshore from Australia, with, oftentimes, absolutely no hope of, or even a pathway to, regularizing your situation as a recognized refugee [which puts you] therefore under the protection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The government of Australia promises that if you arrive by boat, you will never again see one square inch of Australian real estate. This is the real story of what’s going on with both Mr. Fish and thousands of other detainees in these criminal, almost Nazi-inspired detention camps. The International Red Cross or the International Red Crescent Society, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and governments all over the world should be sending at least ministerial-level fact-finding missions to Manus Island and the other detention camps in this particular Australian gulag.

MC: Do we know … whether Ali is being punished for his cartoon work?

RR: [What I can say is:] For a refugee in one of these camps to be caught trying to communicate surreptitiously with the outside world, you will be severely punished, and you will be liable for an additional two-year prison sentence.

MC: What is it about Ali’s work that has most moved you and the CRNI/Courage Award judges?

RR: While Ali is undergoing such brutal and inhumane treatments, and suffers from physical attacks of all kinds, his cartoons remain so poignant, full of life, so full of friendly children and so full of hope. And in these cartoons, his characters are asking just such simple humane questions. His cartoons will someday he recognized as important world-class chronicles of the worst human behavior since the World War II concentration camps.

MC: A group of Australian cartoonists has drawn as a campaign on Ali’s behalf. Are you hopeful that your Courage Award can shine another spotlight on his case and be effective?

RR: Our award often has the effect of shining a bright light on a very desperate, lonely and disenfranchised cartoonist somewhere in the world. We have had great pleasure in seeing many of our awardees transitioning from total obscurity into some of the most globally recognized and influential cartoonists in the world.

MC: Many of the once-jailed cartoonists who have received your award are now free, and you worked the globe over for decades on behalf of artists’ human rights. How is Ali’s case unlike — and very much like — others you have fought to bring attention and justice to? And is the U.S. government at all involved?

RR: Whether the U.S. government is involved, I don’t know, but it is inconceivable to think that very high levels of the State Department are completely aware of his and other detainees’ situations. Of course, the Australian government is lying through [its] teeth whenever any diplomatic queries are sent out, so countries like the United States have to weigh the cost of promoting human rights with probably the economic and political risks of irritating some of our allies.

Every cartoonist’s situation is different. Every theater we work in is different. When we are working in a brand-new environment or region where we’ve never worked before, the learning curve is quite steep, and can sometimes be lengthy. Our protocol for helping cartoonists is: First, do no harm. Second, always work either directly with the cartoonists if it’s possible, or with a legal representative, or the family will remain free, and determining what the strategy should be in trying to find a cartoonist relief from their troubles. In a case like Mr. Fish’s, [the] environment surrounding him is absolutely overwhelming, and has so many different elements to it, that it’s hard to get your head around the whole thing.

MC: What do you want readers to most know about Ali’s case?

RR: Mr. Fish’s case is the worst, most complicated, most heartbreaking case we have ever worked with in our 20-some-[year] history. People should know that a modern democratic country with strong human-rights guarantees in its constitution is running [detention centers] for people with brown skin. This from the country that was given birth by involuntary immigrants themselves. All this from the beautiful country born under the Southern Cross.