The Canberra Times
Friday 27 September 2002
Troubling questions on SIEV X
Senator John Faulkner has stepped well outside any Australian politician's comfort zone. Over three days in the Senate on September 23-25, he bravely raised what Alexander Downer termed "disgraceful" questions, on what the Australian Federal Police might have known about the sinking of asylum-seeker boats and loss of lives.
His questions are based in official evidence. They have not been unequivocally denied by Senator Ellison, the responsible minister.
Until the "children overboard" inquiry began, SIEV X, the boat that sank on its way to Christmas Island on October 19 2001, drowning 353 people, mostly women and children, we knew nothing about a clandestine Australian "people-smuggling disruption program" ( PSDP) in Indonesia. What we now know has emerged partly from Labor senators' persistent questioning of AFP and DIMIA witnesses, and partly from a separate investigation by Channel Nine's "Sunday" of a confessed Australian people smuggler and AFP-paid informant, Kevin Enniss. Over three days, Faulkner has with forensic precision put on Senate record a series of pertinent questions about the PSDP.
This program begun in September 2000, authorised by Ellison, aimed at stopping suspected illegal entry vessels (SIEVs) from leaving Indonesia. In September 2001, Indonesia cancelled the protocol authorising it. But the AFP continued it. On October 12 2001, fearing a surge of SIEVs, the People Smuggling Taskforce in the PM's Department directed agencies to "beef up" the PSDP. SIEV X sank a week later.
Central to the PSDP was a flexible triangular relationship between the AFP liaison staff in our Jakarta Embassy, selected units of POLDA (the Indonesian Police) , and paid informants. Each leg of the triangle was exposed in three "Sunday" programs, in a detailed AFP press release of August 24, and in committee testimony by AFP Commissioner Keelty on July 11.
The AFP trained selected POLDA units to disrupt people smuggling. Keelty admits AFP had no knowledge or control over how POLDA chose to render this service. If they sabotaged boats, AFP said it would not know.
The AFP paid informants like Enniss to provide intelligence on people-smuggling plans. Sometimes such people were set up in "sting" operations. The AFP says Enniss was a people-smuggler as part of his "cover".
The third leg was between people like Enniss and POLDA units. The AFP claims no knowledge of this link. But we know from "Sunday" that Enniss presented himself to asylum-seekers as an Australian undercover policeman. He extorted large sums of money from them, promising to get them safely to Australia. In cooperation with POLDA units, he organised and sabotaged voyages. He admitted to "Sunday" that he sank at least four boats.
Survivors of SIEVX report that uniformed men were involved: passengers spent the day before embarkation in a guesthouse belonging to the local chief of police. Uniformed armed men forced the gross overloading of SIEV X, preventing passengers from getting off.
The AFP refused to divulge to the Committee what was in six AFP reports on SIEV X. Yet it is clear from taskforce minutes and other evidence that much was known in Canberra about Abu Quessai and this vessel before its departure.
Did the tragedy of SIEV X grow out of an Australian-encouraged POLDA "sting" or deterrent operation ? Since I began to ask questions in the Senate committee in March this year, there have been successive cover-ups and refusals of key information. Yet it is clear that both in the disruption phase and in the maritime surveillance and interception phase of Australia's border-protection operation, there has been profound indifference to human life.
This is what Faulkner is now bravely calling to account. As he says, the secrecy protocols under which Australian agencies operate were not meant as a direct or indirect licence to kill. There should now be a full judicial enquiry of Faulkner's profoundly important questions.
It seems these questions are striking home. My own credentials were challenged yesterday by Liberal Senators under privilege. But I am proud of my 30-year career as a senior diplomat. I have nothing to hide. Let Senators Brandis and Mason focus their talents on the issues.
(Tony Kevin is a former Australian senior diplomat and a Visiting Fellow, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, ANU).