ABC navy brutality reports unravel

February 01, 2014 12:00AM

THE Australian can reveal after two days of witness interviews that allegations aired by the ABC that the Australian navy tortured and deliberately burned the hands of asylum-seekers cannot be corroborated.

As the burns case unravels, two more witnesses interviewed yesterday denied seeing anything to support the most serious cruelty allegations arising during operations in which the navy forced two boats and 92 asylum- seekers back to eastern Indonesia. Faisal Hussein, a passenger on a boat returned to Rote Island on January 6, has given the fullest account of the day of mayhem from which all but one of the burns allegations arose.

However, Faisal said he did not see any of the incidents in which asylum-seekers were allegedly burned by sailors forcing their hands on to hot engine parts and was not aware of such claims during the rest of the enforced return journey.

Faisal told The Weekend Australian yesterday he thought the burns were incurred when asylum-seekers on the January 6 boat tried to force their way past sailors blocking their way to a toilet located beside the engine room.

Of the eight Somali asylum-seekers interviewed at length, only one, Yousif Fasher, continues to insist three asylum-seekers on the January 6 boat were "tortured" in that way.

Yousif, who did not receive any burns, was the source of the deliberate burning allegations made to the ABC, often via Sharmarke Abdullah Ahmad, and to Fairfax Media, Indonesian police and the International Organisation for Migration.

Speaking by phone yesterday from the Tanjung Pinang immigration detention centre, in northern Sumatra, Yousif said: "Three people had their hands put on the engine by force, I saw everything."

The three men, two Somalis and an Eritrean, are with him at Tanjung Pinang.

Yousif said he had given photos of their injuries and phone videos to the UN refugee agency, without any subsequent follow-up.

Sharmarke, self-designated spokesman for 62 pushed-back asylum-seekers remaining under immigration supervision in Kupang, now believes none of the burns was deliberately inflicted.

Sharmarke, who was pushed back on a boat that arrived back on December 19, also at Rote, started spreading claims about navy cruelty on both his boat and the January 6 boat only after the later boatpeople came ashore.

Some days later, though, Sharmarke says he spoke again to people from the January 6 boat: "They told us they were not deliberately forced to touch the hot engine."

Sharmarke continues to allege people on his boat were mistreated, verballed and in one case punched.

Yesterday he brought forward Ali Mohamed, 18, still with a faded black eye after six weeks, who claims he was felled by a sailor's punch.

Sharmarke acknowledged yesterday that at least one deliberate burning case cited to him by Yousif, that of Bowby Nooris, was untrue.

"Yousif told me that this claiming and everything (else) were accurate, but when I asked Bowby, he just told me another story," Sharmarke said.

Bowby told The Australian on Thursday that the serious burn on his right hand came about when he was temporarily blinded by what seemed to have been capsicum spray and stumbled against an engine block.

Mohamad Abdi Rashid, the one burned person on the December 19 boat, told The Australian he was injured during a confrontation with a sailor, who pushed or slung him against an engine.

Kupang police, who originally endorsed the cruelty allegations, have since handed the case over to the National Police, saying they had no evidence other than the accusations of asylum-seekers. The INP has indicated the investigation is now halted.

Originally, Kupang police claimed seven people had been burned badly enough to require hospital treatment but The Weekend Australian has been able to identify six, including the three deliberate cases claimed by Yousif.

Kupang city police chief Tito Basuki Priyanto did not respond yesterday to an interview request.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said through a spokesman on Thursday that following routine internal inquiries about the December 19 and January 6 turn-back operations there was no evidence of wrongdoing to justify any investigation.

He refused again yesterday to comment on specific allegations but said the serious doubts cast by The Weekend Australian's inquiries "further vindicate the government's response to these earlier outrageous claims and the failure of judgment in the reports that sought to give credence to these claims".

Yesterday Faisal, another passenger on the January 6 boat, described to The Weekend Australian the trouble that erupted on day three of the navy's five-day operation, when the asylum-seekers realised the navy was forcing them back to Indonesia.

Thirteen people, including him, jumped overboard during at least four hours of ensuing protest and, as the boat was halted, the sailors on board left them in the water until they asked to come back aboard. They were made to stay on the deck in the sun. Faisal said some had their hands bound by plastic ties but there was no other punishment.

In the meantime, asylum-seekers were trying to push their way past sailors to get to the boat's lavatory at the lower stern deck.

Faisal said the sailors had refused to allow the 45 passengers to use the lavatory any more than once a day "so people used force to try to get to the toilet".

He thinks, but cannot say for sure as he was not at the scene, that that was when four or people, including a women, were burned.

Yousif says the woman was his wife, Mariam Ahmed, and he agrees she was not deliberately burned, but fell against hot machinery when pushed by a sailor as the boat rocked. He also agreed yesterday that Bowby was burned when blinded by what is thought to be capsicum spray and put his hand on to the machinery.

The next day, Faisal said, there was a fitful protest, but no further clashes; and on the final day, when the sailors departed, there was none. "The people were very tired," he said.

Ali said yesterday he was heavily punched by a sailor and fell to the deck "almost unconscious" when he tried to rally a protest against their turn back. "I yelled at them," Ali said, according to Sharmarke's translation. "I said 'we cannot go back there to Indonesia, we want some better life'."

But Mohamed Hussein, who was also on that boat, said he saw no violent incidents. However, because he was in the middle of the packed, about 10m vessel, he could not see everything that went on. "One guy tried to jump overboard but he was stopped," Mohamed said. "There was also two other guys who went overboard, but they threw them a rope."

Mohamed said no capsicum spray was used: "It was not like the other boat."

Additional reporting: Telly Nathalia, Jared Owens


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