An expert radiologist says Australian federal police continued to use wrist X-rays to prosecute children as adult people smugglers after he had given unequivocal evidence of the technique’s unreliability, something he now says was “just wrong” and akin to “child abuse”.
Last week, six Indonesian boys won a major case overturning their convictions as adult people smugglers in 2010 amid the highly charged political atmosphere around border protection.
The children, then as young as 13, were prosecuted and jailed using analysis of X-rays of their wrists, which police said proved they were adults. A trove of documents attached to their cases, seen by Guardian Australia, shows the boys all repeatedly told navy, immigration and police members they were children, which should have seen them sent back to Indonesia under federal police policy.
Police instead took the dates of birth they provided and altered the year to make their ages align with the wrist X-ray evidence, placing the new dates on sworn legal documents.
The six boys – and dozens of others – were imprisoned in maximum security adult correctional facilities in Western Australia.
The wrist X-ray technique has since been entirely discredited, but the documents also show an officer working some of the cases was told years before the six boys’ convictions that the technique was inexact and open to error. Senior government figures were also warned about the unreliability of the technique prior to the boys’ convictions through an immigration department briefing.
The radiologist Dr James Christie began to appear as a defence expert witness in similar people smuggling cases after the six boys were convicted in 2010.
His evidence warned that wrist X-ray comparisons were never intended as a means of assessing age and that the key reference tool on bone development police were relying on had no data on Indonesian populations.
Christie gave evidence that the technique had no scientific validity, and was based on a “cascading sequence of unknown factors and incorrect assumptions to attempt to provide a level of precision about estimation of chronological age that does not exist”.
Christie was shocked when police continued to use the technique.
“We won and we kept on winning and they just kept on doing the same stupid thing,” he said. “There was no evidence that anyone seemed to really care. It was really frustrating, and I remain incredibly frustrated.
“I was saying ‘this test was never designed for this, it’s not appropriate, here’s all the evidence about why it’s a bad idea. You cannot prove that somebody is this age by using this’.
“I would have said that in every report, and I think as time went on, I got even better at it because we found more and more evidence that it was wrong and it was being used inappropriately.”
The radiologist said prosecutions failed in cases where he and another witness, a statistician from the UK, gave evidence for the defence.
“But even when that was happening and when we were successful, for whatever reason, the federal police kept on going with the same argument, over and over and over again,” he said. “I don’t believe they actually talked to anybody who actually knew anything about the use of this test. You’d think ‘do you guys not learn?’ or ‘are you just hoping to look tough?. It just didn’t make any sense.”
“These kids, it’s entirely possible that some of them were not under 18, I don’t know that for sure. But a substantial number were. It was just wrong. It was child abuse really.”
The Australian federal police were contacted for comment. They declined to respond due to ongoing court proceedings.