Notes contradict PM on boat tragedy

By Michael Gordon
National Editor
September 20 2002

Declassified documents have contradicted the Howard Government's assertions that the tragedy in which 353 asylum seekers drowned last October occurred in Indonesian waters.

The documents were sent to Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock and officials during last year's federal election campaign.

The intelligence notes, dated October 23, said the boat, dubbed SIEV (suspected illegal entry vessel) X, was 60 nautical miles south of the Sunda Strait when it sank, clearly in international waters. The next day, Prime Minister John Howard continued to insist that the boat sank in Indonesian waters.

The assertion was contradicted in June when it was revealed that federal police intelligence given to Mr Howard's people-smuggling taskforce on October 23 said the boat was likely to have been in international waters when it sank.

Mr Ruddock played down this revelation at the time, insisting Australia never knew precisely where the boat sank. "Wherever it sank, it was in at least the Indonesian air, sea and rescue zone responsibilities (and) it was quite possibly . . . within the (Indonesian) 12-mile limits," he said on June 23.

But the declassified note, prepared by the intelligence analysis section of Mr Ruddock's department and dated October 23, is precise. "At about 1400 hours on Friday (October 19), when approximately 60NM south of the Sunda Strait, the boat began taking water and finally capsized and sank at about 1500 hours," it says.

At that time, then Labor leader Kim Beazley said the tragedy pointed to a policy failure because Australia had been unable to secure an agreement with Indonesia to stop people smuggling.

Mr Howard rejected this, accusing Mr Beazley of making a "despicable slur" and insisting the boat had sunk Indonesian waters. He repeated this assertion the next day.

Six intelligence notes have been declassified since and given to the Senate committee, which is due to report on the drowning tragedy and the children-overboard episode soon. The notes cover the period between September 10 and October 23 last year, although large sections have been blacked out on national security grounds.

Former diplomat Tony Kevin, who has given evidence to the committee, said the notes showed the boat sank well inside the Australian border protection air-surveillance zone and about 40 miles south of Indonesian waters.

Opposition Senate leader John Faulkner last night said: "I think it is outrageous that the Prime Minister could make such a categorical claim in the middle of an election campaign in order to distance his government from the SIEV-X tragedy when the intelligence available to the government clearly indicated that that wasn't true.

"It's even more outrageous that the Prime Minister seems completely unwilling to acknowledge that he's wrong. I think he should explain why he mis-led the Australian people and apologise."

But a spokesman for Mr Ruddock continued to maintain that the government was not confident about where the boat sank, saying the intelligence report was a "best guess" based partly on Indonesian media reports of interviews with survivors.


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