TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW WITH TONY KEVIN
Radio 6PR, Perth WA
7 February 2003
PAUL MURRAY: The children overboard affair is a political scandal of major proportions that split our nation last year. There were two elements to it. The first was whether the government lied in its claims that asylum seekers threw their children overboard to force the Australian navy to rescue them. Now many people think that propaganda played a pivotal role in the Howard government's win in the 2001 elections. The second part of it is the extent of knowledge the Howard government had about the ramshackle boat the asylum seekers had boarded in Indonesia and whether we stood by and let 354 men, women and children drown when we could have saved them.
Now the issue is set to come alive again in Perth over the next few days. Two of the leading accusers of the Howard government are in town for the Perth International Writers Festival and they will be talking about these matters in a variety of locations.
Now one of them, Tony Kevin, is a former Australian ambassador to Poland and Cambodia. He is now a Visiting Fellow at the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra. Much of that research Tony Kevin has done in recent times has been into the Australian government's shadowy dealings with this leaky boat, the boat that has come to be known as SIEV X. That was its official navy designation whilst under surveillance. The X in that name gives it a certain anonymity but Tony Kevin says the government's intelligence services knew a lot more about it than the name suggests and they knew a lot more about the smuggler who put these desperate people on an unseaworthy boat and sent them to their deaths. Tony Kevin's new allegations clearly demand a full response from the Howard government. We've alerted Justice Minister Chris Ellison about this interview this morning. Tony Kevin joins me now. Good morning
TONY KEVIN: Good morning
PAUL MURRAY: Tony, from your investigations and what came out of the Senate Inquiry, what do you think the real level of knowledge of the Australian Government was of SIEV X?
TONY KEVIN: Paul, it was a very intense and detailed knowledge. The Department of [Im]Migration and the Australian Federal Police were monitoring the activities of people smuggler Abu Quassey for weeks, if not months or years before SIEV X. In fact I believe that Quassey was not a genuine people smuggler at all but a disruption agent working with Indonesian police who had themselves been trained and budgeted and tasked by the Australian Federal Police in Indonesia to disrupt people smuggling.
PAUL MURRAY: How would that have worked?
TONY KEVIN: The intention was to criminalise the industry, to create a pattern of very dangerous, risky overcrowded voyages, to fleece people of their money, and thereby to destroy the industry. It is the same technique that is used to destroy the drug trade. To destroy an activity you regard as criminal or unwelcome, you infiltrate it and you destroy it from within.
PAUL MURRAY: On what basis do you make that claim?
TONY KEVIN: On the basis of an accumulation of evidence that has been very reluctantly extracted. It's been like pulling teeth over the last twelve months from the Australian government and its agencies involved in this activity. This has taken place in the Children Overboard Inquiry. There is a consistent record of obfuscation and manipulation of testimony but despite all of those efforts to blur the situation, Opposition senators have done an incredible job over the twelve months of accumulating real evidence and that process is continuing
PAUL MURRAY: Do we know that Australian spies were watching and listening to Abu Quassey as he was loading up SIEV X in October of 2001?
TONY KEVIN: We don't know because it is buried under a great deal of black ink in the documents that have been furnished to the committee. But we do know for example that on 20th October 2001, an Australian Federal Police report came down to Canberra which led an Australian Federal Police liaison officer Kylie Pratt to take the very unusual step of telephoning Rear Admiral Bonser of Coastwatch, who emerges as one of the more credible figures in this story, to say that there was a report that there was a very overloaded boat had left that presented a risk to life. Unfortunately that report was not properly acted on
PAUL MURRAY: Now what do we know of Australia's involvement or knowledge at the time that the boat goes down and sinks?
TONY KEVIN: We don't know a great deal because of the refusal of AFP Commissioner Keelty to answer questions on that matter for fear of interfering with the subsequent planned prosecution of Abu Quassey. That subsequent planned prosecution has now fallen into a heap because it is quite clear the Australian Federal Police, although claiming to be seeking to extradite Abu Quassey to Australia was never serious about that endeavour.
PAUL MURRAY: Well in the Jakarta Post this morning, I've just got the latest on that, and it reports that the Egyptian ambassador has gone to the Justice and Human Rights Minister Mahendra and saying that they want him extradited to Egypt and saying that there's no legal ground for any country including Australia to have Quassey extradited there and it quotes Mahendra as saying that Quassey's fate remained unresolved and there's a direct quote there, it says, "So far we have not decided whether to deport him to Australia or Egypt".
TONY KEVIN: Yes well there's a very ugly story there from which the Australian Federal Police and Senator Ellison do not emerge with any credit. Quassey was in prison in Indonesia for six months for minor passport fraud. He was released on January 1st of this year. He is self admitted the organiser of the voyage. It is clear he carries in his head a great deal of information about who his police accomplices were. The Australian Federal Police didn't even bother to issue a people smuggling warrant against Quassey for SIEV X until December last year, 15 months after the tragedy. And they have always claimed they were unable to extradite Quassey to Australia under any of those four people smuggling warrants against him because people smuggling is not a crime in Indonesia. However, we in our SIEV X group have been lobbying hard for months that Quassey actually organised a dangerous life threatening voyage which is a crime in both countries and that Australia sought the extradition of Quassey for that crime from Indonesia, I am sure the Indonesian authorities would agree to it. The Indonesian Justice Minister Mahendra throughout January was putting out signals, very public signals, that if the Australian government demanded the deportation of Quassey for organising the life threatening voyage, he would consider that seriously. The Australian Federal Police and the Justice Minister did nothing. Mahendra complained publicly at the end of January about the hypocrisy of the Australian position. He said they are not serious about pursuing this man.
PAUL MURRAY: If your allegation is right, the Australian government had some complicity in what Quassey was doing there and in fact he was in some way a disruption agent working for the Australians, then it would be understandable that we wouldn't want him before a court here, he may well tell that story
TONY KEVIN: Absolutely, the Australian police seem to be prepared to wear the dishonour of being seen not to have tried seriously to get Quassey here because of their greater concern as to what he might say in an Australian court. Bear in mind Paul, there are two Senate motions passed by the full Senate Opposition party majority on 9th and 10th of December last year. The first one called on the Australian government to mount a full powers independent judicial inquiry into the people smuggling disruption program conducted by the Australian authorities and the sinking of SIEV X. The second called on the Australian and Indonesian governments to make strenuous efforts to bring Quassey to justice and any of his accomplices for their role in this tragedy. Now the Indonesian government is behaving with honour, the Australian government is not.
PAUL MURRAY: Now you say that the AFP, the Australian Federal Police, won't give full details of their knowledge of SIEV X. However I think the refugee network in Australia understands that the AFP actually know the real name of SIEV X, have a full list of its passengers and their origins, but these are the details they are not disclosing.
TONY KEVIN: Well the technique of the government agencies throughout the inquiry has been to only give the information which is requested. Senator Jacinta Collins in Senate Estimates late last year asked the AFP "Are there lists of the passengers who died and of the survivors and is the information available on the name of the boat and who its owners were?" The answers came back a couple of weeks ago from AFP, "Yes there are such lists" and "Yes we do know the name of the boat [sic] and who its owner was". Senator Collins will now presumably have to ask more questions to actually get that information.
PAUL MURRAY: Now on this program in an interview I did with the Prime Minister 23rd October 2001 just before the Federal Election and three days after SIEV X went down, I asked the Prime Minister about this issue because the Opposition were making noises about it at that stage and he said to me:
I am saddened by the loss of life, it is a huge human tragedy and it's desperately despicable thing for the leader of the Opposition to try and score a political point against me in relation to the sinking of a vessel in Indonesian waters. We had nothing to do with it. It sank, I repeat, it sank in Indonesian waters, not in Australian waters. It sank in Indonesian waters and apparently that is our fault.
Now was the Prime Minister correct in saying that?
TONY KEVIN: No, the Prime Minister was not speaking the truth because on that very morning at 10.49, he had on his desk a cable from Jakarta which we now have a copy of which has been released after seven months of seeking it by the Senators which says the SIEV X - sorry the SIEV, it wasn't called SIEV X then - the SIEV was believed to have foundered in rough seas to the south of Sundra Strait within the Indonesian maritime search and rescue area of responsibility which is actually a huge area of ocean and extends to the south of Christmas Island and has only a nominal meaning because that whole area was actually the Australian border protection Operation Relex surveillance area. The cable in the body of its text makes clear that the vessel had been travelling for thirty six hours. It departed from Bandar Lampung at 1.30 on 18th October and it began to sink at 14.00 on Friday 19th October and it says the exact position of the vessel at the time of sinking is unknown but it is judged no further south than 8° south latitude on a direct line from Sunda Strait to Christmas Island but it is quite clear from the wording of the cable that the vessel was well out to sea and well on its way to Christmas Island
PAUL MURRAY: Well what would our responsibilities be for it then?
TONY KEVIN: The law of the sea states that any country when a boat gets into trouble in international waters… that any country with assets to help it should immediately go to its rescue regardless of which country's nominal search and rescue zone it falls in.
PAUL MURRAY: So where does your pursuit of the truth in this area go from here? Is it now maybe the trial of Quassey is your last hope?
TONY KEVIN: No, we will never have a last hope because people's consciences will be pricked, people will retire, people will write their memoirs. You don't kill 353 people and go to your grave and say nothing about it. There are dozens if not hundreds of people who know the truth of what happened and the truth will out but in the short term we will continue to press for Quassey's deportation to Australia which the Indonesian Justice Minister continues to offer and the Australian government remains totally silent on. We will continue to urge Labor and Democrats and Greens Senators to do what they've been doing magnificently which is to keep on questioning the record in Senate Estimate. Only two days ago your own Western Australian Peter Cook who chaired the committee made a very strong statement about SIEV X in the Senate in which he criticised the government roundly for not having come clean on these matters and he spoke at length on the issue of where the boat sank.
PAUL MURRAY: Thanks for talking to us today, Tony
TONY KEVIN: Thanks, it's been a pleasure
PAUL MURRAY: Tony Kevin, Australia's former ambassador to Cambodia and Poland and pretty sensational allegations he's making there about Australia complicity with the people smuggler Abu Quassey who sent those 354 people to their deaths and also he alleges that we are not genuinely pursuing the extradition of Quassey to come to Australia to face people smuggling charges, obviously as he says he might actually spill the beans on the complicity he alleges. As I've said we've alerted the office of Justice Minister Chris Ellison to that interview and if he wants to come on and give his side of the story we'll make room for him during the day.