12 July 2002
Blockade 'led to drownings'
By Megan Saunders
THE naval blockade following the Tampa crisis may have pushed asylum-seekers to use inexperienced smugglers like the one who organised a hopelessly overcrowded vessel that foundered, killing 353, a top law enforcement officer said yesterday.
Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty told a Senate inquiry the smuggler - Abu Quassey - believed to be responsible for organising the ill-fated boat, known as Siev X, was behind just 2 per cent of the boat people coming to Australia from Indonesia.
'I suspect there was a displacement effect created,' he told the committee also investigating false Howard government claims that asylum-seekers threw their children overboard.
'Once publicity was given to Operation Relex (the naval blockade) those who would otherwise have accessed the more experienced people-smugglers went to a person who I would describe as a less experienced people-smuggler.
'And I suspect that might be what created such a large number of people ending up on Siev X.' Around 420 asylum-seekers were crammed on to the vessel, of which 353 drowned after it listed violently before capsizing.
Mr Keelty said the AFP was pressing ahead with plans to prosecute Abu Quassey and extradite him to Australia from Indonesia. He believed the AFP, which was interviewing witnesses in Australia, had enough evidence to establish that the smuggler could be charged with offences relating to the 353 deaths.
Mr Keelty also revealed that a protocol between the AFP and the Indonesian National Police was frozen by the Indonesian Government for several months because of concerns in Jakarta that there needed to be an overarching high-level agreement between the Australian and Indonesian governments - not just the law enforcement agencies. The protocol, frozen between September 2001 and last month, allowed for 'disruption' activities on the ground to prevent people boarding vessels by intercepting them beforehand.
But co-operation between Indonesia and the AFP continued on a 'case-by-case' basis regardless, Mr Keelty said. More than 3000 people have been prevented from coming to Australia by Indonesian authorities since February 2001.
However, the committee was told Australian efforts to train and provide equipment to five special smuggling strike teams in the Indonesian National Police had caused anger in parts of the force because of the 'disparity' of resources. Despite the AFP warning of the Siev X departure on October 18, Mr Keelty said the AFP knew nothing of the sinking or where it had happened until after the event.
Labor committee member John Faulkner said it was 'a joke' that Defence Minister Robert Hill had only allowed the existing commander of Australian Theatre Joint Intelligence Centre, Colonel Patrick Gallagher, to be cross-examined even though he had only been in the job since January and had nothing to do with the incidents.