July 17, 2005 - 10:14AM
Australia's longest-serving immigration detainee has used his first moments of freedom to thank the government that kept him locked up for seven years.
Peter Qasim has finally tasted freedom after the federal government approved a bridging visa for the stateless asylum seeker, allowing him to remain in Australia.
Despite his ongoing treatment for depression, Mr Qasim was ecstatic, thanking Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone for allowing him to stay in the country.
He also gave an emotional thank-you to his band of supporters outside Adelaide's Glenside psychiatric hospital where is being treated.
"I am greatly thankful to Minister Amanda Vanstone for giving me visa to live in the community," the 31-year-old said in a statement he read to reporters.
"And I would [give] thanks to Mr Dick Smith and all the politicians and backbenchers and my lawyers and all the lovely supporters who worked hard to get me my freedom."
Mr Qasim - who spent three hours away from the hospital - said he was overwhelmed about being granted his freedom, and hinted at the mental anguish associated with his years in detention.
"Detention is a very bad place if you stay a long time I think you forget the world outside," he said.
"I am happy my time (in detention) has finished."
Mr Qasim was detained after he arrived in Australia on a small boat in 1998.
He claims to be from the disputed territory of Kashmir and says he fled because his Muslim faith put his life at risk.
Before the Australian government offered him a special visa last month, he had asked to be returned to India rather than spend the rest of his life in detention.
But India refused to recognise his nationality and would not accept him.
Mr Qasim had applied for asylum with 80 countries but all refused to take him, including Australia which maintained he failed to prove his nationality.
Mr Qasim is expected to remain at Glenside hospital until at least Monday before moving in with an elderly Adelaide couple who will become his carers.
"They treat me like a son and I will live with them," he told reporters.
Under the terms of the visa, Mr Qasim will be allowed to work and have access to Centrelink benefits and Medicare.
He must also agree to be deported if and when he can return home but his deportation is only a remote possibility given no country is willing to take him.
"He really wants to work and get a job but he hasn't thought about what he wants to do yet," Mr Qasim's lawyer Claire O'Connor said.
Labor has welcomed Mr Qasim's release, but says there should be no strings attached to his visa.
"I welcome that he's no longer going to be in detention but I'm sorely disappointed that the government still can't bring itself to give him permanency," Mr Burke said.
Australian Democrats deputy leader Andrew Bartlett said Mr Qasim's release should never overshadow how "disgraceful" it was that he was locked up for so long.
"He has suffered enormously, his health has been harmed enormously as a direct result of the government policy and the government's law," he told the ABC.
"And whilst it's great he's out, the government should still be condemned for what they have done to this man."
He said he had enduring concerns about Mr Qasim's long-term security in Australia.
Greens senator Kerry Nettle also said the government should give Mr Qasim certainty and grant him a permanent visa.
© 2005 AAP