By Victoria Laurie
Saturday 17 MAY 2003
Former Australian diplomat Tony Kevin is convinced the SIEV-X asylum- seeker tragedy will become the Howard Government's Watergate.
Two men - one grey-haired, the other half his age - are staring at a photo of three smiling children nestled in their mother's skirt. It is the younger man's family, and they are all dead. So is his sister and her four children.
Their boat, a leaky vessel only 20 metres long by four metres wide and loaded with nearly 400 people, sank on October 19, 2001 on its way from Indonesia to Australia.
On that day, the life of 35-year-old Iraqi Mohammed Alghazzi changed forever. For different reasons, so did the life of the older man standing next to him. Tony Kevin was the first person to give the name SIEV-X - suspected illegal entry vehicle "unknown" - to the boat that killed Alghazzi's family.
A year ago, Kevin embarked on a one-man crusade to prove that the Australian Government bears indirect responsibility for the drowning deaths of Alghazzi's family, who were among 353 people - including 146 children - who perished when the lost SIEV-X broke up in heavy seas. Specifically, Kevin believes - but admits he cannot yet prove conclusively - that the boat was deliberately overloaded; that people- smuggling "disruption agents" in Indonesia - some Australian-trained - intended that it should sink to deter asylum-seekers; and that Australian ministers and senior officials have tried to conceal the extent of their knowledge about SIEV-X and those disruption programs. Despite denials in federal parliament, personal attacks and intermittent despair as SIEV-X has slipped in and out of the headlines, Kevin persists. In March, he was named "Whistleblower of the Year" by the international media watchdog Index on Censorship. "My conviction strengthens that SIEV-X will become Australia's Watergate," Kevin declares.
How could a man who spent 30 years defending Australia's reputation overseas, as a diplomat and former Australian ambassador to Poland and Cambodia, have come to this? And is he right?
When Australians first saw on television the faces of distraught SIEV- X survivors - men and women who endured 24 hours in the water and watched their children drown - many saw it as the sad but inevitable result of people-smuggling operations targeting Australia.
It was the middle of the 2001 federal election campaign. Prime Minister John Howard quickly pointed out that, while he was deeply sympathetic, "this boat sank in Indonesian waters - we are not responsible". And while Australian military forces - a frigate, and aerial reconnaissance planes conducting a border patrol exercise called Operation Relex - had been in the general area, they had simply not known this boat was headed for Christmas Island.
At the time, Kevin sensed "the public story was not true, it did not hang together". As a former foreign affairs expert, he had closely followed the Tampa incident, Howard's new border protection laws, his Pacific Solution and the unedifying "children overboard" scandal. By the time SIEV-X sank - two months after the Tampa incident - he'd become disillusioned. "I had a view that what we were doing was morally wrong."
As honorary fellow at the Australian National University's Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, he'd started writing articles critical of Australia's foreign policy, and in particular the handling of asylum-seekers. "Basically I am a retired old fart," he wrote in one article, "with some analytical skills from my previous profession within the Department of Foreign Affairs, and some ability to smell a rat."
He recalls watching the first reports of a lost boat as he sat in his hotel room in Phnom Penh, on the way back from an academic conference in Asia. "The bottom dropped out of my stomach and I wanted to vomit," he recalls. "Being a political animal, I thought, `This is so much what Howard wants. This is going to prove what Howard was saying about these voyages [being] dangerous, this is going to give him the election.'" He came home to Australia to watch a victorious Howard declare that his government's tough policies had dried up the stream of asylum-seeker boats. When he read an article in which a young SIEV- X survivor described her ordeal, Kevin fetched the transcripts "and I cried at these terrifying documents. They had a huge and powerful effect on me."
He read that people had been loaded onto the boat at night by armed men, possibly Indonesian police, and some had been beaten and pistol- whipped. From the start, the overladen boat had a cracked hull and had sat so low in the water that 24 terrified passengers had fled when it stopped en route at an island port before reaching the open sea.
Kevin noted that 11 previous "SIEV" boats had been spotted on Australian radar and were intercepted, but not the twelfth, the boat he dubbed "SIEV-X" in his first newspaper article on the subject. He noted also that previous boats - all of similar size - had never carried more than 230 passengers. Yet SIEV-X, no bigger than a large leisure yacht, had been initially loaded with a staggering human cargo of more than 400. He wondered: didn't that at least invite suspicion? When a Senate Select Committee was formed in February last year to investigate "A Certain Maritime Incident", the official euphemism for the "children overboard" scandal, he seized his opportunity. The CMI inquiry had widened its terms of reference to examine other asylum- seeker boats that had attempted to reach Australia, and Kevin was determined SIEV-X would be one of them.
After researching and writing two submissions, he was invited last May to appear before the inquiry (purely, he thinks, as an act of courtesy to a former ambassador). His testimony was explosive.
The central thrust of his argument, he told the inquiry, was that Australian Coastwatch had known of the boat's departure but had failed to pass on the information to the Australian rescue authorities. Kevin proffered evidence (including coordinates given to media by an Indonesian harbourmaster) to suggest the boat had, in fact, sunk in international waters, making Australia liable under international law to divert its military presence to the area to save lives at sea. Kevin's speculation would later go further - he believed the boat had probably been sabotaged, in a deliberate bid by the Indonesian authorities to provide a grim deterrent to people-smuggling.
But his most inflammatory suggestion to the committee was that Australia's failure to save the SIEV-X survivors might have been a calculated act of oversight by an Australian government desperate to deter people from attempting to reach this country. "What I was saying was so unbelievable, but they heard me out," says Kevin. Government members on the senate committee could barely contain their rage. Was he saying the Australian authorities might have callously sanctioned the deaths of men, women and children in the interests of stopping the people-smuggling trade? And on what evidence?
Not enough, Kevin conceded. "I think we are dealing with a very complex and serious mystery here," he told the inquiry. "The way into the truth, I suspect, will be quite long and tortuous."
Just how tortuous would be revealed in the following months. By the end of July last year, the senate inquiry had stalled, denied the testimony of key government and military officials. But two Navy rear admirals soon publicly contradicted each other about how much the Navy had known about SIEV-X's presence, and one journalist revealed multiple references to a "vessel likely to have been in international waters south of Java" in leaked official minutes from a "People- Smuggling Taskforce".
Kevin's speculative claims gained more plausibility when the Select Committee, under Senator John Faulkner's relentless probing, prised out of reluctant witnesses details of a previously unknown People- Smuggler Disruption Program, a shadowy joint operation between the Australian Federal Police and Indonesia's security and police forces. AFP commissioner Mick Keelty was forced to admit to the inquiry that while the AFP had "tasked", funded, trained and equipped a team of 20 Indonesian police to conduct people-smuggling disruption programs, they had no control over how they did it. And the Nine Network's Sunday program reported that Kevin Enniss, an Australian undercover informant hired by the AFP in a remote part of Indonesia, had boasted about having taken money off asylum-seekers and paid Indonesians to sabotage boats. "When you have people admitting to sinking boats, of taking money under false pretences from asylum-seekers, you're 90 per cent of the way to the SIEV-X scenario," concludes Kevin.
Faulkner put it another way, calling for an independent judicial inquiry into Australia's operational protocols over Indonesia's disruption program. Those protocols, he said forcefully, "were not meant as a direct or an indirect licence to kill".
But Faulkner's own Select Committee, when it tabled its report last October, exonerated the Australian Defence Force from any wrongdoing in failing to respond to the sinking of the boat. That several Coastwatch reports on SIEV-X had failed to be passed on to relevant authorities was the unfortunate result of an intelligence breakdown. Yet the inquiry noted it was "extraordinary that a major human disaster could occur in the vicinity of intensive Australian operations and remain undetected until three days after the event, without any concern being raised within intelligence and decision- making circles".
The AFP claimed the senate inquiry had sullied its reputation, despite AFP assurances that it had only engaged in "lawful and humane activity" in Indonesia. When Kevin aired his views on Perth radio in February, Justice Minister Chris Ellison accused him of failing to inform his audiences of such denials. "These allegations are not only false but they're scurrilous and the AFP commissioner has said as much himself," said Ellison. "There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that [in] any way Australian authorities were involved in the sinking of SIEV-X."
And Ellison angrily rejected another of Kevin's claims: that the government was making only half-hearted efforts to extradite from Indonesia the Egyptian-born people-smuggler Abu Quassey, who confessed to having organised the SIEV-X voyage. "They fear that the evidentiary trail he might start in court could lead back to [Australia's] people- smuggling disruption program," alleged Kevin. "So they have stalled and prevaricated, hoping that Quassey would somehow disappear." Insisted Ellison: "We want this man brought back to Australia to face justice on people-smuggling charges . Any suggestion to the contrary is false and scurrilous."
Days after their radio exchange, a declassified cable from the Australian Embassy in Jakarta was reluctantly released by the government, seven months after the senate inquiry had sought it. Sent to the prime minister, senior ministers and the Australian Federal Police on the same day the SIEV-X sinking was made public in October 2001, the cable had reported that the boat had probably sunk in "Indonesia's search and rescue zone" eight degrees south of the Sunda Strait. In layman's terms, that meant international waters, not Indonesia's territorial zone.
The cable also revealed new details, never given to the senate inquiry, that supported Tony Kevin's contention that SIEV-X was deliberately overloaded. It reported that, in the days prior to departure, a makeshift upper deck made of chipboard had been added to SIEV-X. Why had none of this crucial information, sent to the highest authorities, been presented to the senate inquiry? Kevin wondered. And how come Australian intelligence seemed to know so much about SIEV-X before its departure?
Labor Senator Jacinta Collins asked a foreign affairs official where the intelligence about installing the upper deck had come from. From the survivors, replied the official. "How?" asked Collins pointedly. "They had no prior knowledge of the boat."
"That boat could not possibly have reached Christmas Island," alleges Kevin. "Building an extra deck made it completely unstable and top- heavy - to me that's a strong argument that this was deliberate sabotage, and not just a greedy people-smuggler overloading his boat." Kevin alleges the curiously detailed prior knowledge of SIEV-X reeks of "independent information trails, which I see going back - possibly through intermediaries - to Abu Quassey and those who helped him launch the boat".
Quassey was recently deported from Indonesia, for overstaying his visa, to Egypt, where, Senator Ellison admits, he cannot be prosecuted on people-smuggling charges. He now appears unlikely ever to face an Australian court.
Mohammed Alghazzi is in his own personal hell. He can't sleep without taking sedatives. He can't leave Australia, because he has nowhere to go. And he feels impotent, he tells Kevin, to discover the truth of SIEV-X. "All governments are like a rock - imagine me trying to carve into that rock. What impact could I make?" An emotional Kevin promises to keep probing. "I've taken sides," he admits. "I'm on the side of Mohammed - he could be my son, and look at the agony he's going through. We can't let that go on without giving him some kind of closure."
Kevin is clear about what he wants. "I want John Howard to say, `What we did was wrong in what we did to the people on this boat.' Maybe all he has to say is, `We encouraged the [people-smuggler disruption] program over which we had no control. It led to these people's deaths, and we're very sorry it happened.'" But that's unlikely, he says, "so I will go on hounding Howard, and the public officials who support him on this matter."
Kevin is the ideal candidate for a role as whistleblower, intelligence gatherer and refugee advocate. His Irish-Catholic father, Charles Kevin, worked as a naval intelligence officer during World War II, although the son didn't know it. Kevin senior went on to a distinguished diplomatic career in Australian foreign affairs. On his mother's side were Jews from central Europe who fled Nazi-occupied Austria in 1939 with a few pieces of furniture that now decorate Kevin's home study in Canberra. He was born in Sydney in 1943. "They were rich refugees, but they were refugees, and all of my grandmother's brothers and sisters perished during the war. It gives me a soft spot for refugees and those who help them."
Kevin earned two degrees, one at Trinity College, Dublin, where he met his first wife and joined the Department of Foreign Affairs at age 25. He was posted to Moscow, "where I learned my trade as a diplomat". A stint in New York, two children and a divorce later, he entered the prime minister's department as an adviser on international affairs under Fraser and Hawke. In 1985 he returned to the diplomatic service. He had happily remarried but, in 1988, his second wife collapsed and died from a brain aneurism. "I went through a terrible personal crisis, because she was the centre of my life, so I asked for an overseas posting." He was sent to Poland and then, in 1994, to Cambodia as Australia's ambassador.
Kevin relished the job, but the postings triggered what he vaguely describes as "a progressive loss of innocence" about governments and their power. In Poland, he was brought close to his Jewish ancestry while taking official visitors on obligatory tours of Auschwitz concentration camp. In Cambodia, he was surrounded by the grim evidence of the Khmer Rouge's "criminal regime that had murdered two million Cambodians", a regime the West had formerly allied itself with.
The 1994 murder of Australian backpacker David Wilson by the Khmer Rouge posed an acute personal dilemma. Ambassador Kevin found himself facing allegations that Australia's embassy had dragged its feet and thus forfeited Wilson's life. He fiercely defended the integrity of his department, "because I knew the allegation that the Australian government had let hostages die for the sake of Cambodian diplomacy was untrue".
His personal life was no less stressful. He and his third wife had adopted a Cambodian child, but the marriage foundered. The child stayed with him when they parted. "I was pretty shell-shocked by the end," Kevin admits, and he was losing faith in the integrity of the foreign affairs department under new Foreign Minister Alexander Downer. "I watched it become totally compliant with [Downer's] political ends."
On his return to Australia, he opted for early retirement at 55. He had a payout, no job, and a three-year-old child distraught at being separated from her Cambodian nanny, Sina, and her playmate, Sina's three-year-old daughter. On holiday visits to Cambodia, Kevin and Sina fell in love; they married in 1999 and live in Canberra with both daughters, now ten, and the couple's two-year-old son. "That we had a chance to make a family is wonderful," says Kevin, "and my personal life is giving me great strength."
It is just as well - some friends in diplomatic circles have dropped away since Kevin began writing strident articles attacking Australia's foreign policy. Two publishers have turned down his proposal for a book on SIEV-X, and his campaign has eaten into retirement savings that must now support a wife and three young children.
Kevin's fans and foes fall into predictable camps. Three Liberal senators attacked him in parliament as a "desperate" conspiracy theorist and "disgraced former ambassador in Cambodia". Labor backbencher Carmen Lawrence, who quit as a shadow minister in protest at her party's perceived weakness on refugee policy, holds him "in high regard . He is like a good bureaucrat, he doesn't go beyond the data. I found him to be very cautious."
Senator Faulkner describes Kevin more carefully, as "a strong advocate with genuine concerns . Even [his] worst enemies would have to acknowledge that he has maintained the rage about SIEV-X." But Faulkner notes that while Kevin has a right to his theories, his own job is to deal with facts. "I'm not putting forward anything that isn't supported by a strong evidentiary base."
The same non-committal approach to Kevin's claims is adopted in Dark Victory, the recently published book by journalists David Marr and Marian Wilkinson on Howard's border protection strategy. "Australia did not kill those who drowned on SIEV-X," they conclude, "but their deaths can't be left out of the reckoning entirely."
Broadcaster Peter Mares, whose own book Borderline examines Australia's treatment of asylum-seekers, says he deeply admires Kevin's "guts and persistence, and his claim that the boat sank in international waters turned out to be right". But he's not convinced by his argument. "While the SIEV-X sinking was a terrible crime, and one in which people should be brought to justice, was it a crime of sabotage or negligence?" If the Australian Navy failed to find SIEV-X, "it could have been because they weren't looking," Mares argues. Operation Relex's role was to prevent boats from entering Australian waters, Mares says, and not search and rescue. "Life-at-sea issues weren't what they were on about - they should have been, absolutely no question about that. But whether it was [a case of] deliberate `not seeing' is another question."
Mares has another explanation for the SIEV-X tragedy. After the Tampa incident and new border protection laws, simply reaching Australian waters was no longer a guarantee of being picked up and offered asylum. The only recourse was to force Australian authorities to rescue people, which could happen only if an unseaworthy boat sank or couldn't be towed anywhere. "There was no other way to reach Australia after the Tampa," he argues.
In this environment, Mares suspects people-smuggler Abu Quassey saw the doors closing. "He had one last go - he added the chipboard deck to double his money and we know the result."
But Dr William Maley, a political scientist with the Australian Defence Force Academy and former member of Downer's foreign affairs committee, says Kevin has focused attention on two important and unanswered questions. "One is about whether the entire policy of excluding people from Australia was at the expense of decency and humanity," says Maley. "The other is about the wisdom of making partnerships with Indonesian agencies over whose activities Australia could exercise only the loosest control." If SIEV-X "has disappeared off the political radar in the way the government hoped", Maley believes it will resurface. "It's a time bomb as far as this government and its ministers' reputation is concerned."
Last month, two Vietnamese asylum-seeker boats appeared on the horizon, sent via Indonesia, and Kevin found himself once more in the media spotlight. The previous month, he received the Whistleblower of the Year award, "which invigorated my personal morale enormously". He has started writing his version of the SIEV-X saga and feels confident that a publisher will come on board. "My whole focus is on the book, because in light of people's comments that they are not convinced, it's obligatory for me to set out the evidence at book length. Only that way can it be done credibly." He admits he didn't think his one-man crusade would be so hard. He thought he could "write a book that would be commercially successful, and [become] a bit well- known as a public activist. But society isn't like that."
So is he using SIEV-X to launch a second career? "I guess some people could say that, and this article could be written that way. But it's not true . I'm not that kind of a person. I'm doing it because nobody else is doing it. If I don't, it won't be done."
Caption: Ex-ambassador Kevin; (opposite) survivor Sondos Ismail mourns the death of her three children, who drowned when the SIEV-X people-smuggler boat sank in 2001.
Mohammed Alghazzi was in Australia when his wife, Rgad Alsadi, and children (from left) Mohammed Almonther, 4, Ali Almutth, 5, and Ream, 10, died; (right) people-smuggler Abu Quassey, now back in Egypt, with Indonesian police last year.