Asylum-seekers' real stories revealed

The Australian
January 31, 2014 12:00AM

TWO Somalis at the centre of grave allegations against the Australian navy in recent turn-back operations admit their burns were sustained during clashes with the sailors, who in one case had been forced to prevent asylum-seekers scuttling their boat.

The ABC last week reported claims by asylum-seekers that they were "beaten" by navy personnel "and told to hold on to parts of a hot engine on a boat being towed back to Indonesia".

The government and Defence have vehemently rejected claims the asylum-seekers were mistreated. And the new accounts of the incidents provided to The Australian yesterday, which suggest the injuries happened during scuffles, cast further doubt on the claims of deliberate abuse.

It has also emerged that the person who made the most serious claims to the ABC was not on board the boat where the alleged abuse took place.

Ninety-two people in two boats were forced back to Rote Island, southwest of Kupang in Indonesia's eastern archipelago - on December 19 and January 6.

Eighteen-year-old Mohamed Abdirashid, whose boat was forced back to Indonesia on December 19, said yesterday his arm injury happened as the asylum-seekers continued to "quarrel" with the sailors.

"I told (a sailor) at the time - I was angry - I said, 'Don't touch me again'," he said. "He caught me like this and threw me into the engine. "When I (fell on to) the pump, I said: 'F. . k you!' He said, 'Lay down, lay down, lay down'. I laid down. They handcuffed me."

Bowby Nooris, 20, who was among a boatload of 47 asylum-seekers returned to Indonesia on January 6, said his burned hand happened because the sailors aboard that boat had used "teargas" to quell a protest. Temporarily blinded, Bowby said, he stumbled against the hot machinery and burned his right hand.

About eight days earlier, when the group was first located by the navy, on an island they say was in sight of Darwin, Bowby said the asylum-seekers struggled and protested against being forced back on to their fishing boat.

"There was a big fight at the time between (asylum-seekers trying to) destroy the boat and the (navy) members, those who were on boat," he said.

The chief of Kupang police, who concluded an investigation without resolving the allegations, said last week seven people were burned seriously enough to require hospital treatment.

The Australian spoke to two of those injured asylum-seekers yesterday, mostly through the Kupang returnees' self-appointed spokesman Sharmarke Abdullah Ahmad, a 25-year-old Somali business and English student who made the most serious allegations aired on the ABC.

Those three and Abdi Karim Mubarak, who witnessed events on the December 19 boat, say they are prepared to give their evidence to Australian investigators.

"We know the people who (have) done these kind of incidents, we know their names and we know their ships, we know them by physical appearance" said Abdi, a 36-year-old former seaman, speaking through Sharmarke, who has good English.

Abdi and Sharmarke say they can identify the three navy vessels that pushed back the December 19 boat - by the numbers on their hulls, 88, 83 and 154 - and some RAN members involved. Two sailors from ship 154 "made physical abuses to us". Sharmarke said the captain of No 88 "was rather a good man".

"He claimed, 'It's not up to me, this decision is up to government' and we just waited for the answer from the government as he said."

Last night Immigration Minister Scott Morrison cast further doubt on the asylum-seekers' allegations.

"After first claiming they were tortured, the individuals have now changed their story and are making further unsubstantiated claims against our navy and Customs and Border Protection Service, alleging inappropriate use of force," he said.

"Australians can make up their own minds who they wish to believe. I accept the assurances of our navy and our Customs and Border Protection Service, who routinely put their own lives at risk to protect our borders and save those who try to breach them. I know and trust that our navy and Customs and Border Protection Service act in accordance with their training and would only use force where necessary and appropriate to deal with threatening and non-compliant behaviour.

"There are clear rules and guidelines to govern their behaviour and use of force and they are well trained to act in accordance with these rules. I'll back their professionalism and integrity over the self serving claims of those unhappy that they were denied what the people smugglers promised them."

The asylum-seekers were interviewed yesterday by The Australian and the ABC, which has been at the centre of the domestic controversy over the navy mistreatment allegations.

The four raised some fresh matters, such as alleged use of "teargas" on the January 6 boat - which appears to have been pepper spray - and additional descriptions of the RAN vessels and personnel involved. The interviews failed to yield any corroboration for allegations RAN personnel deliberately burned some asylum-seekers by making them "hold on to a hot engine pipe".

On the alleged use of pepper spray, a spokesman for Mr Morrison said last night Border Protection Command personnel were trained in the use of "personal defensive equipment" and medical assistance was provided if required to anyone overcome by their use.

"The equipment is used, for example, to bring people under control when they are engaged in non-compliant, threatening behaviour to other passengers or crew," the spokesman said. "The government rejects any suggestion that such devices have been used in a manner that was not compliant with standard procedures and training. Any such claim is baseless."

Sharmarke, who was responsible for publicising the most serious allegations about the events on the January 6 boat, was a passenger on the December 19 boat. Yesterday, he seemed unclear about the precise nature of the allegations. Speaking about two other asylum-seekers who had jumped overboard, he claimed at one point that sailors "just physically beat and then forced them to hold the (engine) pipe".

Those men have been transferred to Tanjung Pinang immigration detention centre; Sharmarke conceded later he had no direct knowledge of the claimed incident, which happened on the January 6 boat.

The "hold(ing) on to a hot engine pipe" claim was aired on ABC radio's January 22 AM program, together with an introduction that "new footage appears to back asylum-seekers' claims of mistreatment by the Australian navy".

Additional reporting: Paul Maley, Telly Nathalia


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