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Australian bikie infiltrator's refugee case shows police informants 'could end up dead', lawyer warns

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Stevan Utah standing in a small auditorium holding an urn of ashes
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Stevan Utah was granted asylum as the first known refugee from Australia in a landmark claim.

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The case of a bikie gang infiltrator, who became the first known refugee from Australia after his cover was blown, is a warning to other police informants "they could end up dead", his Canadian lawyer says.

Russ Weninger, who represented one-time Australian Crime Commission (ACC) informant Stevan Utah in a landmark asylum claim, said damning findings by the Canadian Refugee board "should be embarrassing to Australian authorities".

The ABC revealed on Monday that the tribunal found Australian authorities failed to adequately protect Mr Utah, after a 2006 press release by the crime commission inadvertently "outed" him as a registered informant.

It also found the betrayal of Mr Utah, who is subject to active contracts for his killing, took place amid a "broader pattern" of witness protection failures "due to corruption, ineptness and structural difficulties" within the country's law enforcement.

Mr Weninger said the findings of "widespread corruption" were a "black eye" to the country.

"I hate to say it, but if you're someone who's considering to be an informant for law enforcement in Australia, you should maybe think twice after hearing Mr Utah's story because you could quite possibly end up dead," Mr Weninger told the ABC from his Calgary office.

The ACC's former witness protection chief, Roman Quaedvlieg, agreed that the revelations would discourage other informants from helping investigators who needed them more than ever, as crime groups increasingly hid their communications through encryption technology.

Mr Weninger said it was "quite rare that a Canadian tribunal would find that there's corruption in law enforcement in another country such as Australia, [which is] considered to be one of the cream of the crop in terms of developed democracies".

"So it is a black eye for a Canadian tribunal to be determining that there is fairly widespread corruption, or at least there was fairly widespread corruption among law enforcement in Australia," he said.

Mr Quaedvlieg would not confirm Mr Utah's involvement with the crime commission but said he had "some personal knowledge of enforcement matters" involving him before 2006.

He worked at the agency while Mr Utah was its registered informant, leaving the ACC before Mr Utah was according to the Canadian ruling exposed to his bikie associates.

"It is regretful that this case, and the attendant criticisms of Australia's human source management capabilities, has been aired so publicly," Mr Quaedvlieg said.

"The creation of any perception that human sources will not have their welfare managed appropriately is a disincentive for them to collaborate with enforcement."

'They hung him out to dry'

Mr Weninger said if police in any country wanted informants to "assist them doing very, very dangerous jobs, they have to go to bat for them at the end of the day".

"The Australian authorities didn't go to bat for Mr Utah. They hung him out to dry. And if you have a reputation for doing that, you're not going to be able to attract quality informants," he said.

Mr Quaedvlieg said he was not aware of the circumstances leading to Mr Utah gaining refugee protection.

"Experience informs me that with high-level human sources, it is often the case that many versions of the truth exist," he said.

No Australian authorities testified in Mr Utah's refugee hearing.

Former Australian Federal Police commander Phil Kowalick whose academic study of problems within Australia's witness protection was cited in Mr Utah's hearing told the ABC he disagreed with "any suggestion of corruption in witness protection".

"[But] I certainly agree that the way that we currently do witness protection in Australia could be done much better," Mr Kowalick said.

He said the issue of whether Mr Utah was treated fairly remained a "serious question".

"We've seen one side of the story, we haven't seen the other. We're not likely to either, because of the secrecy provisions around the act," he said.

Utah 'didn't look like a refugee'

Mr Weninger said the refugee hearing was also unusual because Mr Utah was allowed to address the tribunal in an "impassioned plea about how he didn't look like a refugee".

"He was a white guy from Australia a tough and crude Australian fellow who by all accounts no-one would expect to be a refugee, but nonetheless he was," he said.

"He made his case eloquently and I think I even observed tears coming down the cheek of the member at that time."

The immigration lawyer said he was "shocked at first" to encounter an Australian claiming asylum in Canada, which was "unheard of".

"I thought [Mr Utah] might be some sort of mentally ill person, to put it mildly, I thought it might just be a brazen attempt to acquire immigration status in Canada," Mr Weninger said.

"But after talking with Mr Utah, I realised that it wasn't completely spurious, that in fact he did have a very good refugee claim."

Mr Weninger said his client a former soldier was "a star witness, extremely intelligent and a bit of a control freak".

"If he didn't have those characteristics, I think he would have long ago been killed," he said.

The ACC, now known as the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, and Queensland Police and the Foreign Affairs Minister have all declined to comment on the case.

 

 

 

Bandidos have been charged with a range of offences following their Tasmanian visit.

Provided by ABC News Bandidos have been charged with a range of offences following their Tasmanian visit.

A man who infiltrated the Bandidos bikie gang has become the first known refugee from Australia after an overseas tribunal found he was abandoned by local authorities who blew his cover.

The ABC can reveal that former outlaw motorcycle gang insider Stevan Utah won the landmark asylum claim in Canada.

Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) accepted evidence that there were murder contracts placed on Mr Utah's life after he was recruited by the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) for a national operation against bikie gangs.

In a ruling that condemned the actions of Australian authorities, the IRB found the country failed to offer Mr Utah adequate protection amid a "broader pattern due to corruption, ineptitude and structural difficulties".

It found Australia's top crime agency "outed the claimant as an informant" with a 2006 media release "divulging that they had a source" in the Bandidos.

Months later Mr Utah fled Australia after what the IRB accepted was a brutal attempt on his life by some Bandidos members on the Sunshine Coast hinterland.

He has since spent more than a decade in hiding and legal limbo.

The former soldier, who gave authorities information on serious crimes including murder, was a "significant target for the [Bandidos] leadership given his depth of knowledge and history with them and his subsequent betrayal", the IRB said.

It referred to active contracts for Mr Utah's killing and expert testimony that Bandidos "would have had his murder arranged" had they known he was in Canada.

His role with the ACC included leading investigators to the body of Victorian man Earl Mooring four years after his murder, which Mr Utah said he witnessed.

'I am now not Australian', says Mr Utah

Mr Utah told the ABC in a statement he was "pleased for Australia" that new anti-gang and corruption entities had formed since he fled.

"But the fact is, I am now not Australian," he said.

"Protection is questionable at best and it was found there is not and was not any 'internal flight avenue' available to me.

"What was done to me years ago is 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."

'Only case I'm aware of': expert

Australian National University international law expert Matthew Zagor said the refugee protection ruling on September 29 last year was unprecedented.

"This is the only case that I'm aware of, of an Australian citizen being recognised overseas by a tribunal on the basis that there's an absence of state protection," Associate Professor Zagor said.

He said Canada had a very thorough process for determining refugee and protection status.

"It's a difficult argument to make, no doubt," he said.

In a written judgment obtained by the ABC, IRB member Jodie Schmalzbauer found Mr Utah "established with 'clear and convincing evidence' the state's inability to provide operational adequate protection from the threat against him".

"I do find that the claimant would more likely than not face a serious risk to his life, almost immediately on his return to Australia," Ms Schmalzbauer said.

Bikie informant 'most dangerous job in the world'

Former detective Duncan McNab, who wrote a book about Mr Utah and gave evidence in the IRB hearing, said it was an extraordinary twist to a policing scandal that should never have happened.

"I think it's a great embarrassment that another country has said that we can't handle our registered agents, our undercover people, properly, fairly and humanely as well," Mr McNab said.

"What I really hope this does is ensure that the Utah mistakes don't happen again, that we look after these poor buggers placed in such dangerous circumstances.

"The most dangerous job in the world, I reckon, being undercover in the Bandidos bike gang."

The ACC, who paid Mr Utah as a registered agent and gave him certain legal immunity while he operated inside the Bandidos, removed him from "protective custody" after his cover was blown.

No Australian agency gave evidence in the Canadian hearing.

But 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".

She said Mr Utah's lawyer in Australia, Chris Hannay, had exhausted all options by approaching agencies, including Queensland Police, that had "jurisdiction to provide the claimant protective custody given the nature of his evidence in the murder that he witnessed".

Mr Hannay told the ABC such protection would have been necessary for Mr Utah to return to Australia to address historical fraud charges in Queensland, which were withdrawn then revived.

Australian judge raised safety concerns

Emails seen by the ABC suggest the ACC discussed with Mr Utah the delivering of a "sealed document", to support him in the District Court in Brisbane in 2006.

XXXXX_XXXX_XXXXXXXX@msn.com 22/08/2006, 9:31 pm

"Will you please contact my solicitor Mark Hartwell, he tells me you haven't and is feeling rather anxious about your intentions in relation to a sealed document. Respectfully, I am beginning to feel the same anxiety.

Thanks

Stevan"

Reply XXXX.XXXXXXXX@crimecommission.gov.au 22/08/2006, 10.08 pm

"Relax"

A week later, Judge Helen O'Sullivan emailed lawyers in the case, raising concerns about the "complex issue of Mr Utah's fears for his safety" after he had fled.

"I know nothing about what (if any) protection is currently being offered or could be offered" to Mr Utah, she said.

Law enforcement had 'head in the sand'

Mr Hannay told the ABC this month: "There was a grave concern he'd be executed in a jail, which is not uncommon, or he would be executed if he was allowed at large on bail."

"His only real alternative was to stay where he was [in Canada]."

Mr Hannay accused Australian law enforcement of having their "head in the sand" in relation to Mr Utah's safety.

He said his client had "assisted authorities with some significant matters that resulted in a number of arrests for very, very serious offences" but negotiations involving police agencies had "disintegrated".

The IRB was scathing in its summation of Australian authorities in Mr Utah's case.

"Although the state should not be obliged to guarantee perfect protection, there does appear to the panel to be a broader pattern due to corruption, ineptness and structural difficulties that when confronted with motivated and capable [outlaw motorcycle gangs] that effective protection is not forthcoming, to informants or sources."

The IRB noted the higher burden of evidence required for an asylum seeker from a "highly-developed democracy such as Australia".

But it found Mr Utah gave "forthright, spontaneous and credible testimony" backed by "numerous credible witnesses", including two Canadian organised crime detectives and a former NSW gang squad intelligence officer.

Mr McNab said he had spoken to police who benefited from information Mr Utah provided.

"We're talking about drug deals, drug imports, meth labs, murder for hire, assaults for hire, the importation of firearms," he said.

"The guy is an invaluable asset it's just damn sad it was handled so badly."

Neither the ACC's successor, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC), nor the Queensland Police Service (QPS) answered detailed questions from the ABC.

An ACIC spokeswoman said it did not "comment on operational matters as a matter of policy".

"This includes confirming or denying involvement in the ACIC's and the former Australian Crime Commission's human intelligence source [informants] capability," she said.

The QPS did not give any response.

Queensland's Crime and Corruption Commission said it could not comment on whether it was aware of contracts on Mr Utah's life.

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