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Watching a hearing: on the coming inquest into the death of Michael Atakelt

Last Friday, the Victorian State Coroner held another directions hearing for the inquest into the death of Michael Atakelt. About one hundred people attended; once all the seats were full, they stood three deep at the back and along the side of the courtroom.

It is a year since Atakelt disappeared – he went missing late in June and his body was found in the Maribyrnong River in early July – and over six months since the coroner’s first directions hearing. The Ethiopian-Australian community continues to show up in ever-greater numbers.

The coroner, Jennifer Coate, set the date and details of the full inquest into his death. It will run for two weeks, beginning on 11 February 2013, and hear evidence from over 30 witnesses. Its aim is to establish the cause and circumstances of his death, openly and publicly.

The directions hearings, however, have a different role. The coroner went to some length to explain everything as clearly and simply as possible – especially for Atakelt’s father, Getachew Seyoum, who has no legal representation. But directions hearings aren’t for onlookers. They’re for the coroner. They’re for the lawyers. They’re to clarify timelines, to set parameters.

The effect is an unsatisfying mix of transparency and mystery. You have a sense that nothing is being withheld, but at the same time, nothing much is revealed. The lawyers have all read the police brief – they’ve seen the evidence and they know the likely outcome.

In the seats, few people know any of that. The experience is something like whale watching on an empty sea: you wait vigilantly, scanning the horizon for fragments of truth to surface. Now and then, shapes emerge: he was involved in an incident in Flinders Lane; police records show he’d only been in custody once in the months prior to his disappearance; one of the pathologists said there may have been a needle mark on the inside of his left arm.

But the great bulk of the investigation swims just below the surface, in the minds and folders of the people at the front bench. You are confused: you know they’ve seen something, but you don’t know what it is.

When the hearing finished, we stood for the coroner to leave the courtroom and then Seyoum turned around and addressed the audience in Amharic, explaining that the date had been set for the full inquest.

Most people I spoke to afterwards had confidence in the coroner. While many didn’t understand the vast delays, or even what had happened in the courtroom just then – ‘Why do they all speak so quietly?’ one person wondered – they thought that the truth would out. Then again, some didn’t; and that lack of trust will be a problem for the frayed relationship between the community and police, until next February, at least.

Outside, Daniel Haile-Michael was handing out postcards for a play called Black Face White Mask, which he wrote with the other members of the Flemington Theatre Group. It is showing at the prestigious Malthouse Theatre in mid-July. The flyer describes it as a ‘fast paced hard-hitting comedy about what it really means to be Afro-Australian’.

Haile-Michael is studying civil engineering, but he’s also an actor, volunteer and activist. He said that his community, especially the young people, must find a way to have their voices heard. Otherwise, the tension he observes among his peers will continue to build, until someday it breaks. ‘And that’s why I’m doing this’, he said.

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Michael Green is a freelance journalist who writes about environmental and community issues. You can read his articles at michaelbgreen.com.au.

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