GENEVA (Reuters) - Australia must compensate and release 46 refugees whom it has arbitrarily detained and treated in a cruel, inhuman and degrading way, a U.N. human rights watchdog has said.
The U.N. report comes in the middle of an Australian election campaign where immigration is a major issue, as the rival parties vie to appear tough in promising to curb an influx of asylum seekers.
Australia, which said the refugees had received adverse security assessments from its chief spy agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, said it had six months to respond to the U.N. findings.
"The government is conscious of the need to carefully balance the safety and security of the Australian community and Australia's human rights obligations to that person," an Immigration Department spokeswoman said.
The refugees, who include 42 Tamils from Sri Lanka, three Rohingya from Myanmar and one Kuwaiti, complained to the United Nations after they were locked up without being told why.
The U.N. Human Rights Committee considered their case and found Australia had breached its obligations under a human rights treaty barring arbitrary arrest or detention.
Seven of the refugees - a mother and her son born in 2007, and a family of five - have been granted visas and released, but the other 39 have been held in immigration detention facilities for more than two and a half years, the U.N. human rights office said in an e-mailed statement on Thursday.
As recognized refugees, the group have the right to remain in Australia. But Australia has said they are a potential security risk and refused them visas, the office said.
The refugees said they could not challenge their detention without information about why they were being held.
The committee, which checks that countries are complying with a landmark treaty guaranteeing civil and political rights, said Australia was obliged to offer all 46 an "effective remedy", including releasing them under appropriate conditions, with rehabilitation and appropriate compensation.
"The combination of the arbitrary character of (their) detention, its protracted and/or indefinite duration, the refusal to provide information and procedural rights to (them) and the difficult conditions of detention are cumulatively inflicting serious psychological harm upon them," panel members wrote in their conclusions on the case.
Australia must also prevent similar violations of its treaty obligations in future, the committee said in its conclusions, which were adopted on July 25 but only made public on Thursday.
Australia told the committee the refugees' claims were inadmissible and people with an adverse security assessment could not be allowed in.
It said it was exploring all options, including resettlement and safe return. It declined to give classified details of the detention, saying that would compromise Australia's security.
Most of the 46 had arrived in Australian waters between March 2009 and December 2010, and five were rescued at sea, the statement said.
Australia's Tamil Refugee Council urged the immediate release of the refugees in detention.
"The message to the Australian government is unambiguous here. If its signature on a treaty means anything, it must immediately release these people," spokesman Trevor Grant said.
"If it refuses to act, it is blackening the country's international reputation and making a mockery of its new position on the U.N. Security Council."
Surveys ahead of the Sept 7 ballot show the opposition conservatives, led by Tony Abbott, ahead of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's Labor party.
(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Andrew Roche and Clarence Fernandez)