Young Ethiopian man found Dead in a Maribyrnong River, 'My son was murdered', father
Michael Atakelt's girlfriend, Elsa Giday, with his father Getachew Seyoum
The father of a young Ethiopian man found in a Melbourne river believes he finally has some hope of finding out how whether or not his son was murdered following a hearing in the Coroner's Court today.
Getachew Atakelt Seyoum welcomed Judge Jennifer Coate's decision to hold a 10-day inquest in February. He said the fact that the scope of the inquest will include the circumstances in which his son, Michael Atakelt, died last year might help answer the "millions of questions" he and others have about what occurred.
Michael Atakelt, 22, was found dead in the Maribyrnong River on July 7 last year. He had been in police custody the night before he disappeared and had told friends of being taken in for questioning by Victoria Police officers up to 10 times in the weeks before he died. The court was told that police records indicated he had only been taken into custody once.
Mr Seyoum welcomed the fact that the inquest would be public and would run from 11 to 22 February next year. Thirty-four witnesses will be called and a panel of experts will be able to cross-examine each other's evidence, a practice Judge Coate described as "hot-tubbing".
Some of approximately 100 people from the African community who attended the directions hearing said they felt their concerns about Michael Atakelt's death were finally heard. "I'm really happy. We might get some answers," said Michael's girlfriend, Elsa Giday.
"It's a good outcome," Hakim Stout said.
Ethiopian Australian Helen Kassa said she planned to expand on the short documentary she had made about the case for a film school project. "I think it's really good that we will have some sort of conclusion and will know what happened to Michael. I really hope so," she said.
Mr Seyoum, who represented himself in court, has repeatedly told Victoria Police that he believes his son was murdered and has been calling for the homicide squad, not Footscray police, to investigate his son's death. Many members of the African community have also publicly called for the homicide squad to investigate.
Judge Coate did not address this in the hearing, but made it clear that she would broaden the scope of the investigation if required as evidence was presented at the inquest.
Mr Seyoum has repeatedly stated that Footscray police officers told him his son had no injuries when found. But when he, accompanied by friends, identified the body, he said Michael had a damaged eyeball and facial injuries and his body appeared to be covered in bruises.
Judge Coate said photographs of his son's body taken before an autopsy was conducted would be shown to him.
Mr Seyoum still does not know where his son was in the 11 days before his body was found. "We still don't know what happened to Michael from the time he was taken into police custody."
The Atakelt family asked consultant forensic pathologist Byron Collins to conduct an autopsy, which took place on July 20 last year. The results will be made available at the inquest, as will the results of the autopsy conducted by forensic experts Dr Shelley Robertson and Noel Woodford. Voula Staikos, a senior toxicologist at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, will also give evidence on the panel.
The inquest will examine an incident in Flinders Lane before Michael Atakelt's arrest and his lodgement and release from the Melbourne Custody Centre.
It will also examine the last days of Mr Atakelt's life, including his relationships with his friends.
Getachew Atakelt Seyoum, father of Michael.
A barrister for Mr Atakelt's mother, Jane Dixon, SC, said the relationship between the African community and police was likely to be explored at the inquest.
Judge Coate said that while she understood that the community felt it was an important issue, at the moment she could not see an evidentiary link to the death.
Ms Dixon said she would also examine during the inquest whether Mr Atakelt was in a state of mental and psychological crisis. Judge Coate said she had found nothing in the information provided to suggest that Michael had mental health issues at the time of his death. However it was noted in court that he was estranged from some family members and was homeless at the time.
The young Ethiopian had only lived in Australia for five years and was yet to become a citizen, but he had many friends and was known for his bright smile.
Mr Seyoum said he hoped that the inquest would determine his son's last movements. He would also like it to investigate the treatment Michael's mother Askalu Tella received when she first filed a missing persons report on July 4 last year.
Ms Tella said at the time that police told her they had no information. When she returned the next day, an officer told her he could not find the previous day's missing person report and she had to file another one. She said the same occurred on July 6.
Needing moral support, Ms Tella took five members of the community with her on July 7, but was again sent home. She said police called her later to come back in, when she was told her only child had been found in the river.
Many members of the African community remain angry that police did not follow standard practice and go to Ms Tella's house to tell her her son was dead.
When Dr Berhan Ahmed, a senior research fellow at Melbourne University, called a meeting of the African Think Tank, the advocacy and support group he founded for African Australians, shortly after Michael's death the community turned out in force to grieve and discuss the many theories surrounding the death.
More than 250 people, representing local families and community groups, spoke for more than three hours about Michael. They told Assistant police commissioner Stephen Fontana and other officers about their belief that Michael was being harassed by some Victoria Police officers before he died, and of their frustration that their children or friends felt targeted while at the same time struggling to stay at school and find jobs.
This was the first of several fiery meetings where Dr Ahmed and others told police that the community was angry about the "over-policing" of young Africans. "People are distrustful and they have real reasons. We know that young Africans have been assaulted and have made complaints to the Office of Police Integrity," Dr Ahmed said.
Complaints by young men dating back to 2006 form part of a court case alleging racial discrimination by some police officers. Flemington & Kensington Community Legal Centre is acting on behalf of the claimants against Victoria Police. The case is yet to be heard in the Federal Court.