Cable Unravels Gov't Claims on Deadly Voyage
Bob Burton
11 February 2003

CANBERRA, Feb 11 (IPS) - A furore over the 2001 sinking of a boat carrying asylum seekers has taken a new twist, after an Australian official denied ever seeing a diplomatic cable that contradicts claims by Prime Minister John Howard that the boat sank in Indonesian waters instead of international waters patrolled by Australia.

Appearing before the Senate Legal and Constitutional legislation committee late on Monday evening, the commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, Mick Keelty, denied any knowledge of the controversial cable on the affair -- even though he was listed on the circulation list along with another 34 ministers and national security officials.

The Australian Federal Police were the central Australian government agency running a campaign to 'disrupt' people smuggling operations. Keelty's denial added to the festering controversy surrounding the sinking of the boat, codenamed SIEV-X by the Australian military, and beyond that, the Australian government's role in disruption operations to discourage asylum seekers from heading toward Australia.

For the last nine months, the Howard government has vigorously stonewalled all attempts by a Senate committee to obtain a copy of the cable, even though it was considered to be a document critical to understanding the sinking of SIEV-X on Oct. 19, 2001.

The sinking of the boat resulted in 353 mostly Iraqi and Afghan men, women and children drowning.

At the Senate committee proceedings, Sen Jacinta Collins asked why the cable revealed knowledge of radio communications between the SIEV-X and its owner and a rescuing fishing boat and shore -- but in Keelty's answers to questions previously asked of him, he had denied any knowledge of radio communications.

He floundered at that question. "Well that's the first that I have ever become aware of that", he claimed. "What I need to now do is ask who prepared this answer and whether they had access to that cable and if not why not,'' Keelty said.

The recently declassified cable from the Australian embassy in Jakarta, which was tabled in the Australian Senate on Tuesday last week, reveals that when SIEV-X sank it was well within international waters under surveillance by Australian defence forces in 'Operation Relex'.

However, after receiving the cable, Howard claimed the boat sank in "Indonesian territorial waters" -- and therefore beyond the scope of Australian surveillance and rescue operations.

The chairman of the Senate committee into a certain maritime incident, Sen Peter Cook, told the Senate last week that the cable contradicted evidence given by public officials into the sinking of SIEV-X and other incidents.

According to Cook, officials on the distribution list for the cable told the committee that the boat sank in Indonesian territorial waters even though they swore an "an oath before the inquiry to tell 'the truth, the whole truth and nothing else but the truth'".

The cable also contains detailed information on the exact number of passengers, lifejackets and other details unlikely to be known to the asylum seekers but most likely to have come from intelligence sources -- or the organiser of the ill-fated journey of SIEV-X, Egyptian born Abu Quessay, who is now under investigation as well.

The embarrassing revelations around the cable come ahead of Howard's visit to meet Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri in Jakarta on Friday. Indonesian Justice Minister Yusril Ihaza Mahendra is expected to decide before Howard arrives whether Quessay will be extradited to Australia or Egypt. Quessay is held in an Indonesian immigration detention centre awaiting Mahendra's decision.

Reports in Indonesian and Australian media say that he will be extradited to Egypt to face charges on SIEV-X. In early February, Indonesian officials said Canberra had shown ''no official interest'' in having him extradited to Australia, a point that critics say show the Australian government's lack of interest in getting to the bottom of the SIEV-X sinking.

Former Australian diplomat Tony Kevin, who has campaigned vigorously on the issue, worries that if Quessay is extradited to Egypt, he will not be successfully prosecuted.

"The view of survivors whose families are in Australia that I have spoken to is very much that Quessay should be tried in Australia for the actions that brought about the deaths of their families,'' he said.

"They don't see a reason for Quessay to have to go back to Egypt, which is inaccessible to their witness testimony, to be tried. The fact that he is an Egyptian national is not really relevant. The relevant thing is where is the most appropriate jurisdiction in which to prosecute the crime,'' he added. ''It seems that jurisdiction is either Indonesia or Australia.''

The minister for justice and customs, Sen. Chris Ellison, has avoided answering whether the Australian government has so far asked Indonesian that Quessay be extradited to face charges relating to the fatal voyage of SIEV-X.

"Due to the sensitive nature of these negotiations, it is not appropriate to make further comment at this time,'' Ellison told IPS.

The cable also states that "a makeshift upper deck had been added with the after decks enclosed by chipboard (presumably to enhance seaworthiness)". The detail has raised suspicions that Australian government officials had in fact been closely monitoring the boat before its departure.

"How on the 23rd of October were we aware that this makeshift upper deck had been added? When had it been added? Was it because we had prior knowledge of the ship's departure that it had been added?" Labor Sen Collins asked Keelty on Monday night.

Once more Keelty claimed no knowledge of the cable. "Not only was I not possessed of the knowledge of the cable nor was I provided that in the briefing that I was given,'' he told the sceptical senator.

Campaigners for the SIEV-X victims believe the boat was sunk in a 'sting' operation designed to disrupt people smuggling operations but that went wrong.

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