Sabotage concerns about SIEV X
15 December 2002
THE allegations that have for most of the year surrounded the sinking of the SIEV X asylum-seeker boat continue, despite a Senate inquiry effectively clearing Australian authorities of blame and finding little new evidence in months.
One reason for this is Tony Kevin, the ex-diplomat whose obsession brought attention to the affair early this year and who dogmatically refuses to let it go.
But the more significant reason SIEV X remains alive is allegations that Australian police promoted 'disruption activities' in Indonesia to thwart people-smugglers.
This has led to questions about sabotage. The nature of the disruption remains murky and it is unclear just what was done on Australia's behalf, but a former police informant in Indonesia reportedly claimed, and later denied to police, that he sabotaged boats so they would sink.
Questions also remain about whether tracking devices were placed on boats. Police Commissioner Mick Keelty has refused to comment on the basis that the answer could disclose police techniques.
The uncertainty has given air to Kevin's allegation of 'mass indiscriminate killing' of the 353 people who died when SIEV X went down. The increasingly alarmist nature of his allegations finally provoked the Australian Federal Police to the front foot last week, with national operations manager Ben McDevitt offering a frank interview.
The suggestion that police were involved in the sinking, directly or indirectly, is 'a scurrilous and baseless attack', he said.
But Labor, the Democrats and the Greens are not letting it rest, and last week joined in the Senate to pass resolutions calling for a judicial inquiry into the disruption activities, and calling on the Government to ensure people-smuggler Abu Qussey is brought to justice before he can flee.
Qussey, an Egyptian, is due to be released from an Indonesian jail on January 1. Australian police have issued four arrest warrants for him on people-smuggling charges, but Qussey cannot be extradited because people-smuggling is not currently a crime in Indonesia.
Indonesia has promised to pass new laws, and was supposed to have done so by now. It now appears those laws will not pass until next year, by which time Qussey will be out of jail and could be out of Indonesia.
The other option was charging him with homicide, which is, of course, a crime in Indonesia, allowing Qussey to be extradited under current laws. But that came to nothing, as police said they could not establish where the boat sank and could therefore not establish which jurisdiction was involved. Kevin has alleged police are deliberately not pursuing Qussey on homicide and are letting smuggling charges drift to avoid a trial in Australia.
A trial, he said, would uncover dirty secrets about what we did in Indonesia.
It is this accusation that has McDevitt riled. McDevitt said police had done their best to go after Qussey, including interviews with survivors and the Indonesian fishermen who picked them up [emphasis added].
'Tony Kevin's view that we do not want to bring Qussey to justice is quite frankly absolute rubbish,' he said. 'What he is stating is not consistent with the evidence that clearly is there and that is what I find quite worrisome and quite offensive.'
On the homicide brief, the legal advice was that there was no relevant geographical connection with Australia, he said. As to the people- smuggling charges, McDevitt acknowledged Qussey would be out of jail before laws were passed in Indonesia, but said that did not necessarily mean he would escape Australian courts.
Given that Qussey is not Indonesian, he will probably be deported ... and if he is taken to a country from which he could be extradited, like Britain, he could quickly be in Australia's hands.
'I guess what I'm saying to you is we don't believe that it's impossible. We believe that there's a very good likelihood that he may be deported from Indonesia and if he is deported from Indonesia then from an AFP perspective that opens up other possibilities,' McDevitt said.
Police efforts to snare Qussey are one thing.
The nature of disruption activities is another. And at this point, we're no closer to answers. The Government has ignored the Senate's call for an inquiry, and police have not been forthcoming with information. McDevitt said the program had been unfairly maligned, and never involved or encouraged unlawful conduct. 'We've put people through training programs in relation to this and there's never been any hint in any of that of any endorsement of any illegal or unlawful activity... that is just not the way we operate,' he said.
But to say Australian police did not encourage illegal activity is not to say Indonesians did not do it. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer insisted in September that the Government did not order any form of sabotage. But, he added, 'Did anyone ever sabotage a boat? No idea.'
Keelty was quizzed on disruption activities of Indonesian authorities in Senate hearings.
Question: 'How do you know what they are up to?'
'We don't,' Keelty replied.
Question: 'How are you satisfied that those activities are conducted in an appropriate way?'
'That is not for me to say,' Keelty said. 'I do not have any power over the Indonesian authorities.'