Court hears calls from doomed asylum boat

Tim Clarke
June 25 2013

THE phone line was terrible, the language barrier insurmountable and the consequences horrific.

The croaky and increasingly frantic caller pleaded for help for the Siev 358, which eventually sank in waters between Indonesia and Christmas Island in June last year, leading to the deaths of more than 100 asylum seekers.

The inquest into how 17 of those drowned was told it took Indonesian and Australian authorities nearly two days to decide who was in charge of the rescue after they finally established a GPS position from the termite-ridden boat.

By then it was too late for 102 men from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran fleeing the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Indonesian and Australian authorities were both lambasted by counsel assisting the coroner, Marco Tedeschi, who accused them of binding themselves in red tape as the boat floated to its doom.

West Australian coroner Alastair Hope heard the ramshackle fishing vessel had been loaded with 210 asylum seekers as it left Java with little water, few life jackets and immediate problems.

The opening day of the inquest was played the repeated phone calls to the Australian Rescue Co-ordination Centre (ARCC), where the men on board pleaded for help to leave the leaking, damaged ship.

"For me to help you, you need to tell me where you are,'' the ARCC tells the boat at one point.

Ironically, when the authorities got the position, they were fatally delayed.

The boat's first position was given as 36 nautical miles south of the Sunda Strait, which prompted Australian rescue authorities to tell those aboard they were in Indonesian waters and should turn back.

But Mr Tedeschi outlined a 2004 agreement stating the nation that receives the first distress call is responsible for a rescue - meaning Australia should have acted.

"The reality was (Australia) has responded to distress calls ... and was under an obligation to commence rescue operations,'' he said.

"They needed to do more, they needed to issue distress calls, they needed to think whether they were best placed.''

Indonesian authorities accepted responsibility for the rescue 11 hours later, but no helicopter, marine police or merchant vessel responded, no naval vessel was ever called, and an offer from Australia to issue another mayday call was rejected.

About 33 hours after the first distress call, the boat capsized.

It is believed almost all those who died were in the hull.

A further eight hours after it sank, a Customs plane saw the stricken boat, and Australia called all ships in the area to assist.

Merchant vessel MV Dragon responded within two minutes, and was rescuing survivors within 90 minutes.

It has also emerged through media reports a people smuggler known as Freddy Ambon admitted his involvement in the tragic voyage, referring to the asylum seekers as "goats''.


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