Secret asylum boat report withheld from police

July 26, 2013 - 4:10PM
Brisbane Times
Natalie O'Brien

A top-secret report into the Australian authorities’ response to the distress of the ill-fated asylum seeker boat known as the SIEV 358 was deliberately withheld from an investigation into the sinking, a court has heard.

As a result, the investigating officer says he can no longer stand by his report.

The WA Coroner’s Court has been told that an Australian Federal Police agent told Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Defence not to give the classified document to a police officer who had been asked to investigate the sinking as a major crime on June 21 last year.

The officer, Detective Inspector David Bryson, told the court he had no idea that information had been hidden from him until he arrived at court on Friday morning.

He told the court, which is investigating the deaths of those on the boat, he had top-secret clearance and could have been shown any classified or secret information - but he was never told it existed.

Detective Inspector Bryson said he could no longer stand by the conclusions in his own report into the deaths, knowing he had not been given all the facts. It would no longer be a full and honest report, he said.

‘‘My brief was to treat this job as a serious crime,’’ he said.

Detective Inspector Bryson said he asked the AFP liaison officer who was to be the single point of contact for all Commonwealth agencies to provide all documents, videos and reports relating to the investigation.

‘‘It was a cover-all request for all documents, either secret or top secret,’’ he told the court.

But counsel for Customs and Border Protection and Defence, Mr Peter Hanks QC, then revealed that an AFP officer had given direct instructions that Customs and Defence should not hand over the internal review of the sinking. The investigation had been ordered by Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare.

‘‘The AFP specially asked that the document not be provided,’’ said Mr Hanks.

The WA Coroner, Alastair Hope, expressed surprise at the revelations. He has asked for the name of the officer who made the request, the date, the reasons and on whose direction it was made.

Detective Inspector Bryson told the court that he knew ‘‘absolutely nothing’’ about the AFP withholding information.

The inquest has been hearing evidence about the adequacy of the response of the Australian authorities to the passengers on the boat.

It has been revealed they made 16 desperate phone calls to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) pleading for help, saying their boat was taking on water and they had no lifejackets. The phone calls began on June 19 and continued until the boat sank two days later.

The report that was withheld from WA Police has already criticised AMSA for not being proactive enough in helping the boat and for transferring the responsibility for the search and rescue to its Indonesian counterparts, despite being told that they did not have the capability to conduct the search.

AMSA manager Alan Lloyd has told the court he had no record of receiving such information. He admitted that AMSA did not know what Indonesia’s capabilities were, but said they had followed the protocol in transferring the responsibility because the boat was still in Indonesia’s search and rescue zone.

Mr Lloyd has also told the court that distress calls from asylum seeker boats are not taken on face value because of previous false alarms, or what he referred to as ‘‘refugee patter’’, and had to be checked and verified. But he instructed staff to assess each call on its merits.

In defence of his agency, Mr Lloyd said other agencies that had access to secret information had all agreed that the boat was not in ‘‘distress’’.

The Coroner, Mr Hope, has already told the court that he does not intend to make any adverse findings against individuals but has said it is clear that if there had been an earlier response to the calls for help from the boat, all the lives of those on board could have been saved.

The inquest is due to finish on Friday, with the Coroner publishing his findings at a later date.


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