A Malaysian bodyguard sentenced over the politically charged murder of a pregnant woman is among dozens of people released from immigration detention after Wednesday’s high court ruling.
Sirul Azhar Umar, a bodyguard to former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, has languished in immigration detention in Australia since having his claim for asylum in Australia rejected in 2019.
The Australian government has declined to deport him back to Malaysia, because he faces the death penalty and would be hanged if he returned.
His lawyer, William Levingston, confirmed to Guardian Australia that Sirul had been released after the high court decision but could not be deported back to Malaysia.
“My client is facing death by hanging in Malaysia for a murder conviction and until the death penalty is abolished by the Malaysian government, the Australian government is unable to deport Sirul Umar due to non-refoulement obligations,” he said.
The solicitor general, Stephen Donaghue, has identified 92 people who are potentially affected by the decision, though has conceded his estimate may not be exhaustive.
Guardian Australia revealed on Friday that more than half of the 92 people identified by Donaghue had their visas cancelled by ministers due to serious concerns about criminality.
Documents tendered as part of the case show 78 are owed protection and half a dozen had been in detention for over a decade.
The Albanese government has begun releasing individuals from indefinite detention after receiving multiple demands from long-term detainees.
Advocates estimate about 50 people have already been released, including all 27 who were held at Yongah Hill immigration detention and about eight so far from Villawood.
Many so far have been released without visas, reflecting the urgency of ensuring the commonwealth did not face false imprisonment compensation claims. Their status is expected to be regularised with bridging visas in days or weeks.
The Human Rights Law Centre’s acting legal director, Sanmati Verma, said those with the highest care needs had support while others are left at hotels, which she said is “setting people up to fail”.
Verma warned if their status is not regularised soon, they face “destitution” and the risk of being re-detained by police or border force officers unaware of their situation.
The director of Human Rights for All, Alison Battisson, has had about 13 clients released already.
While some will be “fine”, Battisson said others will require significant support because they are “so institutionalised, they don’t know what they’re allowed to do”.
“I’ve been saying, you’ve done a decade in detention, you can do another few days in a shitty motel.”
Others, such as Levingston, have said the process is too slow.
“People are being released from immigration detention very slowly, upon each detainee’s individual assessment by Home Affairs,” he said.
Levingston said he suspected that the number of individuals affected by the decision is “much more than the 90 or so” initially identified. The solicitor general submitted on Wednesday that the detention of a wider cohort of 340 people in long-term detention may also be in doubt.
Sirul was sentenced to death for the 2006 murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a Mongolian woman who was a translator for, and lover of, one of prime minister Najib’s former associates, Razak Baginda.
She was pregnant at the time of her murder and was abducted outside Baginda’s home and driven to a clearing on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, where she was shot and her body blown up using military-grade explosives.
Sirul, a former commando, was convicted with another officer and sentenced to death. But Sirul fled to Australia while on release pending an appeal and sought asylum in Australia.
Sirul insists he was ordered to carry out the killing but has declined to say who ordered the killing. In a rare interview with Guardian Australia in 2018, he said he had participated in the abduction but not the murder.
He said he was said the scapegoat in an elaborate political crime.
In question time last week, Labor’s Murray Watt said that “where serious offenders are released from immigration detention, state and territory authorities are notified”.
The home affairs minister, Clare O’Neil, and immigration minister, Andrew Giles, have said that “individuals who are required to be released as a result of the high court’s order will have appropriate visa conditions imposed on them in line with the need to protect the community”.
“Conditions will be based on individual circumstances,” they said in a statement.
“The Australian Federal Police and Australian Border Force are working closely with state and territory authorities and law enforcement to support community safety.”