Claims navy assaulted asylum seekers may not get clear verdict
January 25, 2014
Claims the navy deliberately burnt the hands of asylum seekers intercepted at sea may never be conclusively disproved, with an Indonesian investigation stalling and the Australian government refusing to give a full account of what happened.
Indonesia has cited jurisdictional limitations over whether any crime took place in its territory, while the Australian government has emphatically denied the allegations, which relate to a vessel intercepted with 45 asylum seekers aboard and which set out for Australia on January 1 but returned to Indonesia five days later.
However, the Australian government refuses to offer an alternative explanation that might reveal so-called ''operational matters'' associated with its secretive boat turn-back policy. An asylum seeker says the burns on his hands were caused by Australian Navy personnel holding his hands to hot parts of a boat engine.
An asylum seeker says the burns on his hands were caused by Australian Navy personnel holding his hands to hot parts of a boat engine. Photo: Supplied
Kupang police chief of detectives Sam Kawengian says he finished his investigation after taking statements and organising medical checks of asylum seekers.
''We handed the result to the Immigration Department and immigration will co-ordinate with the International Organisation for Migration about the claims,'' he says.
''According to the refugees, [the Australian navy personnel] questioned them about why they wanted to go to Australia … and, while being questioned, they were hit. They were also made to touch the hot engine parts - that's how their hands got burnt.''
He says he cannot comment about the explanation coming from Australia that the asylum seekers had tried to sabotage their own boat.
''We can only comment on what we investigate,'' he says. ''We saw the injuries. Why would they harm themselves?''
National police spokesman Inspector General Ronny Franky Sompie says the police will communicate with the Australian Federal Police and Interpol.
''The problem is that the crime scene is in the ocean,'' he says. ''I haven't got any information about where the exact crime scene co-ordinates are - whether it's within Indonesian waters territory or not. That's why we need to work together with the AFP to find out the exact location, because they have better equipment.''
The lack of clarity means the incendiary allegations of assault by Australia border protection authorities may be left hanging, allowing a suspicious Indonesian public to form its own views and leaving Australian voters none the wiser. It could also stain the reputation of the navy, linking it to serious allegations of torture that were never substantiated but were never fully debunked in an open inquiry.
The issue has hastened an already steep decline in Jakarta/Canberra relations damaged by last year's phone-tapping revelations dating back to 2009 and continuing strain from the boat turn-back policy.
The government claims its policies are working. Immigration and Border Protection Minister Scott Morrison announced the 36th consecutive day in which there were ''no persons illegally arriving by boat transferred to our immigration authorities''.
''This is the longest period of no illegal boat arrivals since March 2009, when arrivals first started to significantly escalate as a consequence of the former Labor government's decision to abolish the strong border protection regime they inherited from the Howard government,'' he said.
''In the first 100 days of Operation Sovereign Borders, illegal arrivals by boat declined by more than 80 per cent, taking us back to the levels being experienced at the time of the 2010 election … While these results were pleasing, arrivals of around 300 per month do not constitute success. Being able to sustain a zero rate of arrivals for more than five weeks takes us further but these outcomes need to be sustained.''
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has attempted to cool the row by describing the bilateral relationship as in otherwise good condition.
Natalegawa, who has made no secret of his country's unequivocal rejection of the turn-back policy, struck a more conciliatory tone on the streets of the Swiss ski resort town of Davos, where he and world leaders such as Tony Abbott have been attending the World Economic Forum.
But while he refused to discuss specific operational matters, other Indonesian officials have been more bullish, threatening direct confrontation on the high seas if newly positioned Indonesian defence assets detect any likely approach by Australian vessels attempting turn-backs.
Abbott himself rejects the allegations of any wrongdoing by Australian naval personnel, pitching the original claims as a credibility contest between those enforcing the law and those breaking it.
''Who do you believe? Do you believe Australian naval personnel or do you believe people who are attempting to break Australian law?'' Abbott said from Davos. ''I trust Australia's naval personnel.''
The asylum seeker group's spokesman, Yousif, said in early January his friends' hands were burnt after a dispute with navy personnel about the toilet.
''We have three young people, the army does not allow us to go to the toilet, only one time per day,'' he said. ''And they refused. They [were] insisting to go to the toilet. On the day four [out of five days during which they were being towed back to Indonesia], they asked to go to the toilet and they [navy] put their hands on the edges of the engine … the pipe of the smoke out.
''They put their hands there by force, so the other people are afraid, so that no one will go to the toilet … [it was] punishment and so people are afraid.''
Asked about government denials that anybody was mistreated, Yousif responded: ''No, no, they are lying, 100 per cent.''
The question of control over going to the toilet was also raised in 2003 when Afghan asylum seeker Abbas Ali Changizi alleged that, on a 2001 navy interception, ''passing water'' was strictly controlled by officers and asylum seekers asking to do so were mistreated.
Abbas, who also alleged he was subjected to a mock execution on board, made a police statement but his claims were later dismissed as unsubstantiated.
Bangladeshi passengers on another boat turned back on January 5 said they were forced by Operation Sovereign Borders staff to clean the toilet daily on the customs ship they were on.
And, during the same operation, Pakistani passenger Haneef Hussain said he had heard naval personnel using profane language to a man who had asked for help for his wife. ''F--- your wife and f--- your mother,'' they had said, according to Hussain.
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