Trading in tragedy

June 25, 2013
Michael Bachelard

A former Indonesian policeman has been caught by a hidden camera revealing in detail the criminal people-smuggling syndicate he helped to run - and saying numerous police officers assisted its operation.

The man, Freddy Ambon, is one of Indonesia's most active people smugglers and boasts of sending multiple boats a month to Christmas Island.

He talks about a boat he helped arrange last year that sank killing 96 people, prompting a fierce parliamentary debate in Australia and ultimately forcing the Gillard government to reopen the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres.

On the video, Freddy is heard boasting about how he sends the asylum seekers, whom he calls "goats", from two locations with the help of corrupt policemen, described as ''my men''.

Freddy also reveals a change in his syndicate's tactics since last year's sinking. The boat had been carrying 207 people. Freddy Ambon.

"To me, honestly, I don't mind taking small numbers. The important thing, thank God, is that the journey goes smoothly if there were three departures in one month, I'd thank God - 50 people in the first batch, 50 in the second batch, 50 in the third batch, that adds up to 150 people, right?"

The video was recorded in a Jakarta apartment in May by a man posing as someone who could bring Afghani refugees to sail on Freddy's boats. Fairfax Media and the ABC obtained the video in a joint investigation. The man who recorded it is now believed to have left Indonesia.

Freddy - who attended the meeting with his wife, daughter-in-law and granddaughter - describes himself as the operations manager of a syndicate run by Pakistani smuggler Billu, whose real name is Javed Mehmud Bhat and who has since been arrested.

"He's the boss, he's the owner, and I was the one who ran the business without me he could do nothing," Freddy says. "I am an expert at this job everybody knows."

"We've been in the business for years," Freddy's wife adds.

Describing an operation, Freddy says he buys the boat from a man in the North Jakarta suburb of Muara Angke, and then has the engines overhauled and about three tonnes of fuel loaded. The boat is then sailed empty to a beach called Labuhan, near Pandeglang in West Java.

The refugees are then picked up from the Mediterania apartments in a harbourside suburb of North Jakarta and taken to the nearby Ancol Beach marina. The police there do not stop them.

"It's guarded by police, my police, my men," Freddy says.

The head of Ancol police, First Inspector Sulistyo Yudo Pangestu, denied that any illegal migrants had been captured at Ancol and said he had never heard of Freddy Ambon. "Who is your source? I think you have to confirm it with your source," he said.

The refugees take another boat from Ancol to Labuan, where the police also make no arrests. "The police chief is like 'this' with me and the police headquarters will escort the boat," Freddy says. "I'm a former policeman it means there is no problem, bro the passengers will get through."

An Indonesian police spokesman, Senior Commissioner Agus Riyanto, said the claim of corruption at Pandeglang was "not true, there is nothing like that".

But in Indonesia the code-word for bribery is often "co-ordination" and, Freddy says, unsuccessful people smugglers neglect this aspect of the trade. "Those we read about in the media who got caught, it's because they didn't do much co-ordination if they do have coordination, they can get through to Christmas Island."

Freddy also confirms long-held suspicions that refugees are instructed to call for help from Christmas Island authorities whether or not they are in trouble.

"Satellite phones. The captain has one and I have one, so when they're still on their way the captain calls the police on Christmas Island and asks to be picked up we don't wait until they arrive before calling in the emergency. Save our Souls! SOS! Save Our Souls! then the police come and rescue."

During the conversation Freddy is interrupted a number of times by phone calls during which he appears to give advice on refugee boats.

He is also quizzed about the boat which sank on June 21, 2012, in which 96 people died. He acknowledges that he helped to arrange the boat with a Pakistani man, Nana, whom he blamed for the sinking.

"Well, this boat's capacity was only 200, but he loaded on more and more people. And when there was only five or six miles to go to Christmas Island, it was too late for any help to arrive. It was overloaded, so full. I told him, 'Don't put more passengers on', but he insisted. So it wasn't my fault. I did no wrong," Freddy says.

(The boat actually carried 207, of which 111 were rescued by the Australian navy.)

Freddy says someone he knew had been on the boat and is now missing. "He was my next-door neighbour. He's gone. Just ask my wife, I was burdened by it."

Contacted by Fairfax Media on Monday, the man in the video said Freddy Ambon was an alias, and his real name was Muhammad Aksan. However, he denied any involvement in people smuggling.

Fairfax has confirmed with authorities that Freddy is on the radar of police.

WHO'S WHO: The people-smuggling syndicate responsible for the sunken vessel, June 2012

  • Boss: Javed Mehmud Bhat, aka Billu. Pakistani Punjabi.Controls the money and the passengers. Sent more than 13 boats in 2012. Now in jail, arrested May 12, 2013, awaiting charges.
    2IC: Nana. Pakistani Punjabi. Controls the Indonesians and the boats.
  • AT LARGE Operations manager: Freddy Ambon. Indonesian former police officer, right. Deals with the corrupt police, boat buying and repair, and organises drivers, supplies and logistics.
    Passenger liaison: Dawood Amiri. Afghan, right. Brought the Afghani passengers to the boat. In prison serving six year sentence.
  • PLUS Mujahid. Pakistan. Brought the Pakistani passengers to the boat.
    Hawaladar (trusted third party money handler).
    Sayed Mustafa (based in Sydney).
    Sydney spare-parts business shrouds financial transfers between the syndicates and their customers.

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