AUSTRALIA: Pressure Continues for Inquiry into Deadly Voyage
20 October 2003
By Bob Burton

CANBERRA, Oct 20 (IPS) - Two years after an overloaded fishing boat bound for Australia sank in international waters, with the loss of 353 lives, the Australian government is under renewed pressure to appoint a judicial inquiry into the vessel's fateful journey.

Despite the fact that two years have elapsed since the sinking of the boat, codenamed SIEV-X by the military, a series of public meetings and memorial services held around Australia over the weekend has revealed growing public frustration at Canberra's failure to fully explain what its agencies knew about the tragedy.

Former Australian diplomat Tony Kevin told a public meeting in Canberra that there is a need for a full explanation of the activities of the shadowy 'people smuggling disruption' programme that was funded by the Australian government in Indonesia to stop asylum seekers from coming to the country.

'I want truth and honesty about one of the most terrible things that happened in our history. SIEV-X sank in Australian military-patrolled border protection waters. (Prime Minister) John Howard tried very hard to put out a lie that the boat sank in Indonesian waters and that Australia is not responsible,' Kevin told the meeting.

'There may be some people who think that it's over, there may be people who would like it to be over, but I'm telling them it's not over,' a defiant Kevin said.

The 19-metre long boat departed on Oct. 19, 2001 headed for Christmas Island, a part of Australian territory. Around 3 p.m. the following afternoon, its engines - which powered the pumps - failed and the boat quickly filled with water and capsized.

It was estimated that only some 120 of the 397 people survived the initial sinking. While survivors reported military-style boats appearing in the night and shining lights on them before departing, it was not until the following day - some 20 hours after the sinking - that Indonesian fishing boats plucked 44 survivors from the sea.

The editor of 'The Canberra Times', Jack Waterford, said he remains puzzled by the apparent failure of government to give any indication that it had learnt anything from the tragedy. 'What have we seen by way of an institutional response that is to be a memorial to this appalling tragedy? The answer is nothing,' he told the meeting.

Waterford said that after peeling back layers of defensiveness and evasiveness like layers of an onion, those who investigated the issue were left feeling that 'somewhere deep behind it all there is a great and shameful secret'.

'Even now, my major suspicion that there is a great secret about it comes less from any direct evidence which has emerged - though there is some such evidence - but so much as from the pattern of cover-up, defensiveness and, if you like, indifference from the government,' he said.

Last week, the Australian Senate expressed its frustration by passing a resolution calling on the government 'to immediately establish a comprehensive, independent judicial inquiry into all aspects of the People Smuggling Disruption Programme', including into the fate of SIEV-X.

Of the 44 survivors of the SIEV-X disaster, seven are believed to now live in Australia but only on what are termed 'temporary protection visas'.

The terms of these visas require holders to reapply for refugee status when they expire and be required to demonstrate they are still likely to be persecuted if they return to their homeland.

The Senate noted that the failure to grant the survivors residency 'prevents them from fully rebuilding their lives' and called on the minister for immigration, Sen Amanda Vanstone, to grant them permanent visas 'on humanitarian grounds'.

The leader of the Australian Democrats, Sen Andrew Bartlett, movingly spoke in support of the motion on SIEV-X. 'I am not comparing or suggesting that numbers make one tragedy greater than another but, if you think of those 91 names (of the Bali bombing victims) that were read out (at a memorial service) and multiply by four, you would be close to the 353 lives that were lost. Of those 353, 146 were children,' he said on Thursday last week.

Also last week, Justice Minister Sen Chris Ellison responded to questions submitted in mid-July by Labor Party Sen Jacinta Collins. In the answers, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) sought to distance itself from any current investigation of where or how the boat sank, stating only that its 'ongoing investigation' was confined to 'the people smuggling aspect of the SIEV-X disaster'.

While the Jakarta harbourmaster had recorded that the captain of the rescuing fishing boat revealed that SIEV-X sank in international waters, contradicting Howard's claim, the AFP said it had not sought to investigate the claims.

'The AFP has not interviewed the Harbourmaster at the Sunda Kelapa Port, North Jakarta. The AFP is not able to advise whether the Indonesian National Police has interviewed the Harbourmaster,' Ellison reported to the Senate.

Senator Collins, from the opposition Labor Party, was furious and vowed that she would not let the issue drop.

'This issue will not go away - we will keep raising questions through Senate estimates about why we never sought to understand what had happened to these souls. It is outrageous that in this climate we do know the full details of all of the poor souls who suffered in Bali, but in relation to this tragedy we still cannot get a list (from the AFP) of those who drowned (on SIEV-X),' she said.

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