Rights and wrongs

By: Tony Koch

EVERY morning from when she was a baby until she turned five, Shannon Clarke woke to the cuddles and love of her big sister, who would dress and feed her before going off to school.
They were beautiful times, beautiful memories. Now those memories are all that Shannon has left of her sister Janaya. It all came to an end on November 9, 1998, when Janaya, then 17, was hitch-hiking at the Gold Coast with two girlfriends.
The trio were picked up by Claude Gabriel, the girls later became separated, and Janaya was driven to Gabriel's rented unit.
She had not been there long when Gabriel, in a frenzied attack, stabbed her up to 20 times. He did not go to jail because under law exclusive to Queensland, he presented first to the Mental Health Tribunal which found he was ``of unsound mind'' at the time of the murder; therefore it was appropriate he be sent to a mental health institution where he could be treated for his illness and, when he was ``cured'', be released.
While at the John Oxley Hospital Gabriel escaped on one occasion and, while on approved day leave just before Christmas, was taken by his parents to Melbourne from where they then spirited him away to Italy. He has since been arrested in Auckland, New Zealand, where legal argument is proceeding about returning him to Queensland.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on Gabriel's rehabilitation, searching for him and legal fees -- because it is important that this person be given his rights. He has the right to proper treatment, to all the help possible -- and heaven help anyone who criticises that.
But what of Janaya's distraught mother, Robyn Clarke, and her remaining children? Let me spell out the rights of this single mother, surviving on a pension.
At the Mental Health Tribunal hearing, Clarke was not allowed to tender a victim-impact statement outlining the effect the murder had on her or her children.
The Patient Review Tribunal -- that august body which decides when a patient is eligible for leave of any description or actual release -- refused her request to attend hearings. She could have no input into such matters.
Last June, Clarke was informed by letter from the PRT that it considered Gabriel was cured to the extent that he could have leave at the discretion of his treating psychiatrist. Clarke asked that she be told whenever he was on leave, so she could protect her family. The PRT told her she would not be told anything, and that under no circumstances was she to give any information to the news media.
So this traumatised mother -- living in poverty, and in fear every minute for her own life and the lives of her children -- is told by authorities that she will be told nothing and she is not to say a word. What a wonderful system of justice.
Now Gabriel, with the assistance of his wealthy family, is finished swanning around Italy and, with a gaggle of lawyers, is fighting in New Zealand for the ``right'' to be free, or at least returned to Melbourne to be near his family.
This is a bloke whose criminal history began as a 14-year old, who was arrested twice for assaults on his girlfriend, including burglary of her premises and head-butting her.
Since Gabriel did his runner, Queensland Advocate Ian Boardman -- the person appointed to look after the interests of people with mental illness and others who cannot handle their own affairs -- organised a meeting of mental health care organisations to criticise the coverage of the Gabriel escape in the media. It was so vitriolic that it ended in a lengthy complaint to the Australian Press Council because of the ``irresponsible'' references to Gabriel and another absconding killer, Mark Briscoe, in The Courier-Mail.
It was notable that Boardman made no effort to include victims of the crimes. It would have been hard to get Briscoe's father there -- Briscoe had cut his head off with a cane knife. But Robyn Clarke -- and hundreds of victims like her -- would love to be afforded the dignity and compassion of knowing that someone in authority cared even one whit for what they are going through.
There is an attitude -- expressed last week in New Zealand by Gabriel's brother -- that Janaya cannot be brought back, it's unfortunate and they are very sorry for it, but that's life. And the real concern, therefore, is for the welfare of her killer, the greatly misunderstood and mistreated Claude Gabriel.
Questions must be asked about measures at the John Oxley Hospital to secure patients like Gabriel, Briscoe and the scores of others who with monotonous regularity ``abscond'' or just go missing.
Gabriel may be doing it a bit tough, as claimed by his family. But the ones who do it tough every day of their lives -- every waking minute -- are Robyn Clarke and her children. Shannon, now aged nine, would have loved to have grown up with the big sister who used to dress her and brush her hair every morning, and tell her the stories that babies love to hear.
Claude Gabriel -- abuser of women, burglar, vicious, cowardly murderer -- took that joy, that right, away from these people. And that should never be forgotten.