Crucial evidence on SIEV X still wanted

Kirsten Lawson
Canberra Times
Monday, 16 September 2002

DEFENCE Minister Robert Hill has treated the Senate SIEV X inquiry with contempt, blocking witnesses and delaying the issue of information, to the point where nine days from its final reporting date the inquiry is still waiting for some crucial evidence.

The irony of Hill's attitude - and the initial misleading and obfuscatory attitude of Defence and others - is that it has allowed conspiracy to flourish where none likely exists.

The tragedy of SIEV X was that, three weeks from polling day, 353 people, including almost 150 children, drowned while trying to reach Australia on an overloaded boat from Indonesia.

The boat sank on October 19 and, for 22 hours the people tried desperately to stay afloat. Help finally arrived on October 20, and just 44 were rescued.

All but about four of the children died. Among the dead were a mother who gave birth in the water; the pair were seen floating still joined by the umbilical cord. Another mother tried to keep her two girls, aged two and five, afloat but they were pushed under by another struggling to stay alive. She later saw them floating dead.

For five months the "children-overboard" inquiry has focused also on SIEV X, trying to get answers to questions first raised by Tony Kevin, a Canberran who, presciently, didn't believe the official story.

It has been painstaking, as the senators dragged witnesses from the misleading denials of Rear-Admiral Geoffrey Smith - "We had no knowledge of the boat having sailed" until October 22 (after it sank) - to admissions that Defence had known of preparations for the boat's departure, its departure, numbers on board and its rickety state.

Jane Halton also knew about the boat through daily meetings of the taskforce she chaired in Prime Minister and Cabinet. But, like Smith, she initially implied she had known nothing, as Prime Minister John Howard did at the time of the sinking.

Asked in October, Howard said, "We had nothing to do with it, it sank . . . in Indonesian waters, not in Australian waters."

In fact, it appears to have sunk in international waters, maybe 60 miles off the coast of Indonesia, within Indonesia's search-and-rescue zone (which extends to Christmas Island), but also within the Australia's search zone.

The repeated official attempts to insist "we knew nothing" and therefore had no responsibility, have only fuelled conspiracy theories, which have mushroomed among refugee-support circles to the point where there is now a SIEV X web site and regular e-mail traffic among believers.

The suggestion is that Australia had a hand in the deaths, by deliberately ignoring a boat it knew to be in a perilous state, knowing that a sinking would send a powerful deterrent message to future boat people.

'Nothing of any criticality' in the report of October 20: why not?

The alternative charge is that Australia failed in its moral duty to go looking for people it knew could be in danger.

This charge is a matter of judgment. In hindsight, there was a failing, but the navy insists that at the time it had no categorical knowledge about the boat's departure, only conflicting reports that did not justify changing surveillance flights.

On this point critical evidence is still outstanding, despite the inquiry's reporting deadline, Wednesday week.

No agencies will discuss intelligence in detail, but reports began weeks before the boat's departure and culminated in reports on October 18 and 19 that it had left. The detail of those reports we don't know.

Then on October 20 - the morning survivors were found - Coastwatch received a call from the police. The boat had left, it was small, had 400 people on board, some refusing to embark because it was so overcrowded, the officer said, offering a personal opinion that it might be at increased risk.

Coastwatch phoned the news to the joint intelligence centre before 10am that day. The intelligence centre included it in its 11am report to agencies. But air-surveillance crews were not alerted till the next day's mission. Air Commodore Philip Byrne said there was "nothing of any criticality" in the report of October 20 that needed to be passed to crews in the air at the time. The inquiry wants to know why not, and has asked for the report. It is still waiting.

As to the first accusation - that Australia cold-bloodedly allowed people to die for political ends - there has been no evidence for that, but for one disturbing exception.

This relates to activities carried out by Indonesia on Australia's behalf to thwart the efforts of people-smugglers.

Accusations that boats were sabotaged to stop them getting to Christmas Island came from Australian police informant Kevin Ennis, who told Channel 9 he had paid Indonesians to scuttle boats. They had sunk close to land and everyone had got off safely. An Australian Immigration officer says Vietnamese boats were holed in the 1970s so they sank.

Ennis's accusation needs investigation, particularly alongside what we know about Indonesian police or army involvement in loading SIEV X at gunpoint and far overloading the boat, and alongside repeated allegations by survivors that large boats turned up during the night they spent in the water, shone their lights on them and left.

Police Commissioner Mick Keelty told the inquiry that Indonesian police, Defence and Immigration officers undertook disruption on Australia's behalf, but the nature of the activity was up to the Indonesians.

"How do you know what they are up to?" asked Labor Senator John Faulkner. "We don't," Keelty replied.

Faulkner: How are you satisfied that those activities are conducted in an appropriate way?

Keelty: That is not for me to say. I do not have any power over the Indonesian authorities.

The possibility that the SIEV X asylum-seekers were the subject of a terrible sabotage has added new fuel to the conspiracists' fire. But unless there is political momentum for another inquiry, perhaps a judicial inquiry of the kind Faulkner has called for, it is a possibility that will go without investigation.


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