AUSTRALIA: Doubts Fester on Justice for Drowned Asylum Seekers
Bob Burton,Inter Press Service
11 December 2002


CANBERRA, Dec 11 (IPS) - The Australian Senate overrode opposition from the government Wednesday and urged the Australian and Indonesian governments to ensure the extradition of an alleged people smuggler, over the ill-fated journey of a vessel that sank last year with nearly 400 asylum seekers on board.

The Senate motion is the latest development in the controversy that for months has swirled around Australia's 'disruption' operations against people smuggling, in the wake of the Oct. 19, 2001 sinking of the vessel, codenamed SIEV-X by the Australian military, in international waters off Australia's north coast.

A total of 353 people aboard the SIEV-X, which sank on its way from Indonesia to Australia's Christmas Island, drowned.

Officials of Australia, whose government has taken a hard line against asylum seekers showing up at its shores, have denied any direct involvement in sabotaging boats and the SIEV-X. But questions continue to be asked in a Senate inquiry about the methods used by the government and police to prevent the departure for Australia of boats carrying asylum seekers.

On Wednesday afternoon, opposition parties in the Senate passed a motion calling on Canberra and Jakarta to undertake all necessary action to ensure that the alleged people smuggler, Abu Quessai, ''is immediately brought to justice in relation to his involvement with the vessel known as SIEV-X''.

Quessai, an Egyptian national, is serving a six-month sentence in an Indonesian prison for unrelated immigration charges and is due to be released on Jan. 1, 2003.

The Australian Senate expressed concern that there was ''a high risk'' of Quessai ''remaining out of reach of Australian legal authorities'' after his release.

Former Australian diplomat Tony Kevin, who has relentlessly exposed Australian government evasion on the fate of the SIEV-X, now fears Quessai will escape as a result of half-hearted efforts of the Australian government.

''This is the test of the Australian Federal Police's (AFP) and the Australian government's sincerity. When Quessai is freed on 1 January, he will be spirited away by powerful friends in Indonesian police force and not seen again. The Interpol warrants will be easily evaded (and) the AFP know this,'' Kevin said.

Kevin fears the Australian government is deliberately dragging its feet. ''I believe that the AFP don't really want Quessai's presence in an Australian court for fear of what he might reveal about connections between himself and Indonesian police special disruption units that were funded and trained by Australia and that were working with the AFP people smuggling disruption program,'' he said.

At the core of the debate is on what charges Australian officials can seek Quessai's extradition for. Australian Federal Police officers acknowledge that they cannot extradite Quessai until the Indonesian parliament passes legislation making people smuggling illegal.

In a statement Monday, the federal police said that a warrant for the Quessai's arrest had been issued for his role in organising the doomed SIEV-X and its journey to Australia. But ''the AFP release is smoke and mirrors'', Kevin said.

In evidence to a Senate committee of inquiry in July, the commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, Mick Keelty, acknowledged that warrants against Quessai on homicide-related charges relating to the SIEV-X would allow extradition to proceed immediately.

But at a Senate estimates committee on Nov. 20 -- where budget spending by government agencies is scrutinized -- Keelty defended the federal police's failure to pursue a homicide-related warrant because he said they remained uncertain on exactly where the SIEV-X sank.

''The AFP has sought and received advice from the Attorney-General's Department that it is not possible to prosecute a homicide brief because of the lack of ability to prove jurisdiction,'' he claimed.

Although it has been more than a year since the sinking, the Australian Federal Police claimed it ''was not aware of the identity of SIEV-X or its departure point or time of departure, nor does it have any specific knowledge of where it sank,'' Keelty said.

But the federal police's claims that it has no knowledge of where the SIEV-X sank are fiercely disputed by reasonably precise estimates offered so far.

Its denial of knowledge of the location of sinking was further undermined when at the Senate estimates committee hearing, Keelty - along with Justice Minister Sen Chris Ellison - refused to be drawn into a discussion after Sen John Faulkner asked ''whether tracking devices might have been placed in suspected illegal entry vessels''.

The next day, Keelty wrote to the committee chair Sen Marise Payne, to say he refused to reply to the questions that ''call for an answer which may disclose lawful methods for detecting, investigating and dealing with matters arising out of breaches of the law, the disclosure of which would, or would reasonably likely to, prejudice the effectiveness of these methods''.

Government Sen Ian Campbell offered only a short defense of the government's opposition to the motion passed Wednesday.

''This brief of evidence in relation to the SIEV-X includes evidence from interviews with the survivors of SIEV-X in Australia. The strength of the evidence supporting the warrant is a matter for the courts to determine. It is therefore not appropriate for the brief of evidence to be scrutinized by parliament,'' he told the Senate.

But Labor Party Sen Jacinta Collins, who moved the motion, expressed concern about the failure of the AFP and the government to answer troubling questions raised so far.

''The government must demonstrate to the Senate, to the parliament and to the Australian public that it has exhausted all avenues regarding this crime of such large magnitude,'' she told the Senate.

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