Rocking the boat
The Weekend Australian
14 December 2002
Questions about the sinking of Siev X refuse to go away, writes Cameron Stewart
IMAGINE the following scenario. Australian intelligence agents employ someone in Indonesia to loosen the wooden planks of an asylum-seeker boat shortly before it departs for Christmas Island.
Their hope is the boat will leak badly within minutes of sailing, forcing the people-smugglers to return to port with their human cargo, thus stymieing their illegal voyage. Then imagine something goes terribly wrong. The boat does not leak quickly enough and sails far out to sea before capsizing, and the passengers drown.
Even to some conspiracy theorists, this scenario sounds too far-fetched. But scratch deeper and you will find that this extraordinary rumour and others similar to it underpin the decision by the Senate this week to call for an independent judicial inquiry into Australia's efforts to disrupt people-smugglers in Indonesia.
No evidence has been presented to support the notion that Australian intelligence officers have engaged in such activities. But there is deep concern at senior levels of the Labor Party -- as well as the smaller parties -- about how far Australia has gone to prevent asylum-seeker vessels leaving Indonesia. This is a delicate and politically dangerous route for Labor to explore. This week marked a full year since the last asylum-seeker vessel landed on Australian territory. Both sides of politics are happy with this outcome and both say it is partly due to the joint efforts by Australian and Indonesian authorities to disrupt people-smuggling in Indonesia.
Indeed, Labor's new immigration policy calls for more Australian Federal Police to be posted to Indonesia to help combat people-smugglers. So why is Labor, and in particular its Senate leader John Faulkner, so anxious to know more about the covert methods that have been used to thwart people-smugglers -- a program Faulkner calls 'the untold story of people smuggling'?
'We don't know what went on, who did it, who was accountable and what the Government knew about it,' Faulkner tells The Weekend Australian. 'We want to know what these activities were and if they were legal.'
This 'untold story' has its origins in September 2000, when the Government stepped up its war against people-smugglers through a memorandum of understanding between the AFP and the Indonesian National Police. Under this agreement, two Jakarta-based AFP officers, backed by Australian immigration and intelligence officials, were to work jointly with Indonesian authorities to disrupt people-smuggling throughout the archipelago.
It was not until this year that details of this program came to light. They were extracted reluctantly during Senate hearings from AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty, who defends his reticence by saying that too much public information could compromise the disruption program.
What we do know is this: the tactics employed to stymie people-smugglers vary dramatically. They range from basic information campaigns aimed at warning people about the dangers of people-smuggling to dramatic physical showdowns to prevent boats from leaving. The information campaigns include giving T-shirts to Indonesian fishermen that explain why they should not help crew asylum-seeker boats. But the program also involves physical disruption to prevent planned rendezvous between people-smugglers and their paid-up passengers.
Says Keelty: 'Often a disruption activity would be to prevent the passengers from getting to the point of embarkation or, if we knew who the people-smuggler was, to have the Indonesian police arrest the organiser.'
The AFP's national operations manager Ben McDevitt says: 'In relation to people-smuggling, our role is to target the organisers, the organised criminal elements.'
The AFP says the program has been a huge success, leading directly to the arrest of at least three key people-smugglers in the past year alone. But several events have triggered Labor's concerns.
The first was sensational claims made earlier this year by a former paid AFP informant, Kevin Enniss, that he hired people to sink asylum-seeker boats on at least four occasions as part of the program to disrupt people-smugglers. Enniss told the Nine Network that he arranged for asylum-seeker boats to be sabotaged so that they sank close to land, allowing the passengers to return to shore safely.
THE AFP strongly disputes Enniss's claims. However, Labor has since received information from what it believes are well-placed sources suggesting that Australian intelligence knew about the sabotage of asylum-seeker boats and that Australians may have played an indirect role in such activities.
Labor's suspicions have been hardened by Keelty's strangely evasive performance before a Senate committee in July and again last month. Under questioning, Keelty admitted that although the AFP worked closely with the Indonesian police (INP), it had no control over -- and little knowledge of -- the methods the INP used to disrupt people-smugglers.
'The AFP, in tasking the INP to do anything that would disrupt the movement of people-smugglers, has never asked -- nor would it ask -- them to do anything illegal,' he said. 'The difficulty is that once we ask them to do it, we have to largely leave it in their hands as to how they best do it.'
Keelty points out that this lack of accountability reflects the fact the AFP has no law enforcement powers in Indonesia and must rely on the Indonesians to carry out disruption activities. But even the Indonesian Government appears to have had some concerns about the program. In September last year, Indonesia's Foreign Affairs Department suspended the memorandum of understanding for nine months without telling Keelty why, although this did not stop the disruption activities.
When Faulkner asked Keelty last month if the AFP used tracking devices to monitor the movement of asylum-seeker vessels, he declined to answer, claiming 'public interest immunity'. Labor wants the Government to disclose the extent of the ongoing disruption program and what senior ministers know about it. In particular, it wants to know whether it led to the direct sabotage of boats, which may have placed people's lives at risk. If so, was the AFP or ASIS aware of such potentially illegal activities?
In September, Faulkner put these whispers into the public domain. In an extraordinary speech in parliament, he asked whether the Government's attempts to disrupt asylum-seeker boats had extended to the direct sabotage of boats, including the ill-fated Siev X. The Siev X capsized and sank after its engine failed en route to Christmas Island in October last year; 353 men, women and children drowned.
'At no stage do I want to break, or will I break, the protocols in relation to operational matters involving ASIS or the AFP,' Faulkner said. 'But those protocols were not meant as a direct or an indirect licence to kill.'
The Government's response was swift and furious, with Justice Minister Chris Ellison describing the questions as 'an outrageous slur on Australian law enforcement' and a 'a grubby attempt to point-score over tragedies'.
McDevitt says the AFP 'has never encouraged, participated [in] or endorsed any unlawful activity anywhere in relation to people-smuggling activity'.
But by cloaking the program in secrecy, the Government has been unable to kill the rumours swirling around it. The Senate says an inquiry is the best way to sort fact from fiction.