The Australian government has launched an investigation into claims that aboriginal children seized from their parents during the 1920s and 1930s were secretly used as guinea pigs for leprosy treatments.
The allegations surfaced at a Senate inquiry this week into plans to compensate the "stolen generation" of aboriginal Australians who were taken from their families as part of a government programme.
"As well as being taken away, they were used... There are a lot of things that Australia does not know about," Kathleen Mills, a member of the Stolen Generations Alliance and an indigenous elder, told the hearing.
Ms Mills said children held at a compound in Darwin were injected with serums designed to be used in the treatment of leprosy – a practice which seriously damaged their health. Her uncle, who worked there as a medical orderly, had told her about the sinister goings-on.
"He said it made our people very, very ill. The treatment almost killed them," she told reporters outside the hearing. "It was a common experience and a common practice."
Australia's Health Minister, Nicola Roxon, yesterday ordered an investigation into the accusations, asking that the State Health Department and the Department of Indigenous Affairs comb their archives for any evidence of such abuses. "These are obviously very serious allegations and we will do everything we can to ascertain the facts of the situation," she said.
Between the late 19th century and the late 1960s, 100,000 aboriginal children were victims of a government policy that saw them taken from their homes and placed with white families, or in orphanages. The latest claims of abuse come just two months after the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, offered a historic apology to the children of the "stolen generation", condemning the period as "a blemished chapter of ournation's history".
While the Prime Minister may have apologised for "the indignity and degradation" inflicted on the aboriginal community, his refusal to offer compensation has led many indigenous leaders to dismiss the move as a"cut-price sorry".
Australia's 450,000 aborigines are the country's most disadvantaged social group, with a life expectancy 17 years lower than their white counterparts. They are three times more likely to be unemployed, and 13 times more likely to be imprisoned.
An infectious disease specialist from Sydney University has questioned the claims that aboriginal children were subject to unusual or inhumane practices.
Warwick Britton told ABC radio that in the 1920s and 1930s, leprosy sufferers were treated with chaulmoogra oil, which was painful when injected. "It is possible that this has been misunderstood as some kind of guinea pig therapy when in fact it was a treatment that was being used around the world," he said.