Truth missing in murky waters
Canberra Times
Tuesday, 16 April 2002

SINCE the drowning of 353 asylum-seekers off Indonesia last October I have researched both how the survivors were rescued and what relevant Australian agencies might have known about the boat's departure from Indonesia and sinking on October 19, and when authorities might have known it.

This research adds weight to the following hypotheses:

This boat's sinking was not accidental. It resulted from deliberate prior actions intended to render it likely to sink early into its voyage to Christmas Island.

The rescue of 44 survivors on 20 October and their transhipment to Jakarta, arriving there on October 22, was also a managed process, aimed at making survivors accessible to media in a timely way in order to maximise the international news impact of the disaster.

The shock of this tragedy was a turning point. It quickly halted the flow of suspected illegal entry vessels (SIEVs) to Australia, and it prompted the Indonesian Government to adopt a new policy of active cooperation with the Australian Government to oppose people-smuggling.

Questions about information flows within the Australian SIEV detection and interception system must be resolved before we can be sure that no Australian authority failed to respond in a timely way to a known or suspected SOLAS (safety of life at sea) situation, when there might still have been time for the RAN to save lives.

We know now that neither the RAN nor Operation Relex knew about this vessel until October 22, much too late to take any action to save lives. The burden of question now falls on other agencies in the SIEV detection and interception system, which may have known much earlier.

From survivor accounts and consultations with contacts in Indonesia and other experts, we know 44 survivors were picked up, after some 20-22 hours in the water, by an Indonesian fishing boat at around 11am on October 20. The fishing boat had come from Jakarta (300km away) but it had not yet started to fish. It immediately set off back towards Jakarta with the survivors. After 1 days, it met another fishing boat on its way back to Jakarta with a full catch. This second fishing boat took the survivors into Jakarta.

On arrival on Monday, October 22, this fishing boat was met by waiting Indonesian immigration police. The next day, the survivors spoke to local and international media with the story breaking that night, with huge world-wide impact.

The next day (October 24) a shocked Indonesian Foreign Minister announced he would consult the Australian Foreign Minister on how to prevent further such tragedies. A few days later, Indonesia launched an initiative for a people-smuggling conference, co-hosted with Australia. Up till then the Indonesian Parliament had been opposed to such a conference.

There has been no serious investigation of the boat's suspicious departure on October 18. Two policemen were arrested for taking part in the armed coercion of passengers. The people-smuggler who organised the voyage was arrested for documents fraud. No more serious charges have been laid against him.

As for questions about the sinking in Australia, crucial testimony came on April 11 during the Senate inquiry on the children-overboard matter when Rear Admiral Geoffrey Smith said, "Our nearest ship to where that boat sank was 150 miles away. The first that we were aware that this vessel had sailed from Indonesia was when we were contacted by the search-and-rescue organisation here in Canberra, on October 22, when they advised us that this vessel was overdue and it was feared it had foundered in the Sunda Strait area. None of our surveillance had detected this vessel."

When asked by Senator Andrew Bartlett how search-and-rescue had known it was overdue if they did not know it had left, Rear Admiral Smith replied, "They had advice from Coastwatch Canberra to say that the vessel believed to have sailed on or about the 19th for Christmas Island was overdue. We were nowhere near the vessel; we did not know it was there."

When asked by Senator Peter Cook what the Navy would have done if it had been there, Smith replied, "If we were close to where that was, and we knew that it was happening whether it was in Indonesian territorial waters or in international waters we would have gone to the rescue of those people."

Smith's testimony exonerates the Navy from any suspicion of improper conduct. But because of its admirable precision, it throws the burden of question on to earlier stages in Australia's SIEV detection and interception information chain.

One key question now is: if Coastwatch and/or AUSSAR (the Australian search-and-rescue organisation) knew this boat had sailed on around October 19 why was Operation Relex kept in total ignorance until the search and rescue organisation advised on October 22 that the boat was overdue and presumed foundered?

The only logical conclusion is that somewhere in the Australian information chain it was known possibly as early as October 18 or 19 that this boat had left, but had not or was not going to get very far before foundering.

It's crucial to know what precise intelligence came down from Australia's various police and/or intelligence sources in Indonesia regarding this vessel's departure, when it was sent, which agencies in Australia received it, and when they received it. It is possible that neither Coastwatch nor AUSSAR received relevant information until well after the October 19 sinking. In this case, the burden of question falls on the source intelligence agency was information about this boat's overloaded and unseaworthy state omitted or delayed information that could have saved many lives?

It is possible that timely and complete intelligence reports came down from Australian informants in Indonesia, but that further action was blocked by their own parent organisation in Canberra, or by some higher information-processing agency in Canberra: perhaps the interdepartmental committee chaired by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, perhaps Strategic Command, perhaps an even higher authority.

It's possible (though I suspect unlikely) that Coastwatch or AUSSAR received such information and sat on it. In that case, one would also have to ascertain whether Coastwatch's civilian air-surveillance capability (which from testimony so far appears not to come under Operation Relex, in the way that the RAAF Orions do) had carried out any air surveillance of the boat's expected course, and what they found.

I pose these very worrying questions for two main reasons: firstly, because 353 people were drowned in a highly suspicious tragedy while bound for Australia, a fact which, I believe, puts Australians under a heavy moral obligation to try to find out how and why. Secondly, because SOLAS obligations surely pertain to all parts of Australia's SIEV detection and information system, not just to the RAN and RAAF.

On the basis of research so far, I cannot be confident that SOLAS obligations were properly met at all possible stages in SIEV detection and interception. If true, this is a very serious hypothesis and it needs to be investigated seriously even by Senator Brandis.

Unlike the more murky question of what was done in Indonesia, the committee has powers to interrogate and thereby throw the light of truth on what happened at the Australian end. Exposing the full truth on this aspect could in time help to illuminate the larger story from Indonesia.


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