Bitter legacy of the ferryman

August 2, 2004

The Federal Government was involved in the sinking of the SIEV X refugee boat in which 353 people died, claims retired diplomat Tony Kevin.

In February 2002 I suggested the SIEV X boat tragedy was an issue for public inquiry. I asked the Senate committee that had just begun investigating the "children overboard" affair to also examine unexplained, obvious questions about the doomed asylum-seeker boat SIEV X, which sank off Christmas Island in October, 2001.

In March I gave a working name to the nameless boat - SIEV X, or "suspected illegal entry vessel, unknown". My proposed name was at first resisted. The preferred official usage was "the Quassey boat", after Abu Quassey, the people smuggler who had, according to media reports, organised the voyage. My suggested name soon became official because it was short and, I realise now, because it blurred the link between this story and Abu Quassey.

Until we are told the real name of the boat, it will continue to be known as SIEV X. The survivors don't know its name or its owner, though it must have had a registration name in Indonesia. Any name signs must have been erased or removed before the passengers boarded.

The Federal Government never tried to bring Quassey to trial in Australia or Indonesia on a charge of homicide. The only alleged crime by Quassey that belatedly stirred the Australian Federal Police into a little action was the Australian offence of "people smuggling", which is not a crime in Indonesia.

Quassey could have been brought to Australia on homicide charges, under discretionary provisions of the extradition treaty. In February 2003 the Indonesian Justice Minister, Yusril Mahendra, said that he had been ready to hand Quassey over. But it seemed that the AFP was not interested.

There is a wealth of disturbing on-the-record Senate testimony that I believe sustains the following propositions and questions:

 It is likely that Quassey was a police disruption or "sting" agent. This is suggested by the sustained high level of Indonesian and Australian police assistance and protection he enjoyed before, during and after the sinking of SIEV X. There is also the question of his trial in Egypt last year - Quassey was convicted of manslaughter for his involvement and sentenced to seven years' imprisonment in Egypt. He is likely to be immune from future SIEV X-related prosecutions under the principle of "double jeopardy". Under its people-smuggling disruption program in Indonesia, the federal police had a history of involvement with Kevin Enniss, a self-confessed Australian people smuggler and disruption agent. The AFP admitted in 2002 that Enniss was one of its paid informants on people smuggling during 2000-01, while it knew that he was a leading figure in the people-smuggling trade on the Kupang to Ashmore Reef route. The AFP police testified that his information had helped them prevent large numbers of asylum-seekers from setting out on voyages to Australia.

As the federal police Commissioner, Mick Keelty, admitted in evidence to the Senate committee, the conduct of Indonesian police people-smuggling disruption teams - who had been recruited, trained, equipped and funded by the AFP, starting in October 2000 - was out of federal police control. Keelty admitted that criminality in Indonesian disruption operations (for example, the deliberate sinking of boats) could not be ruled out.

The AFP had monitored Quassey closely and knew that two of his earlier voyages that reached Australian destinations had been reported by passengers to have been grossly overloaded, ill-equipped and highly unsafe. Yet Quassey, like Enniss, enjoyed high levels of police protection.

  • Official reports of the boat's exact itinerary, size, structure, fuel capacity, and passenger data were so accurate that the information could not possibly come from talking with survivors, as was officially claimed to the Senate. The detail of this information indicates that it was provided from intelligence sources that had been party to, or closely monitoring, the voyage at every stage.

  • A tracking device may have been fitted on board SIEV X - it is not clear by which Australian or Indonesian agency - in order to track how far the boat travelled and where and when it sank. The AFP refused to confirm or deny to the Senate whether it was aware of any practice to place tracking devices on people smugglers' boats in Indonesia.

    Early reports of radio distress messages sent from SIEV X remain unconfirmed and unexplained.

  • Many survivors reported the appearance of military-type vessels after the sinking that failed to rescue survivors. It is probable that these were Indonesian police or naval vessels that knew where to go to inspect the disaster scene.

  • The arrival of a well-organised rescue operation the next day raises more questions. How did two fishing boats miraculously happen on the scene, far out to sea, unless they had been instructed exactly where to look? Why did the main rescue boat then sail 44 survivors back on a long and roundabout two-day voyage to Jakarta when it would have been faster to land them on the nearby south coast of Java? Why were Australian and United Nations authorities so thoroughly prepared, by the time the survivors got back to Jakarta, for a well-organised media management and policy exploitation of this tragedy?

  • What is the source of an alleged aerial or satellite photograph of SIEV X taken before it sailed?

    Two survivors allege that two AFP officials, accompanying Indonesian police and an official from the International Organisation for Migration, showed them the image after their rescue.

    My close study of the SIEV X public record leads me to ask whether there was, from the beginning, an undeclared "back channel" of tasking and information management. Did such a channel run, possibly through intermediaries, between Australian security agencies working out of Australia's embassy in Jakarta - the AFP and perhaps the Australian Secret Intelligence Service - and Indonesian police working with or through Quassey? My new analysis of the wealth of early public information about the voyage - which cannot possibly have all come from interviews with survivors - and of sustained official attempts in the Senate committee to conceal the truth, leads towards such a conclusion.

    During last year's trial of Quassey in Egypt the AFP quickly inserted itself into the process. It delivered six boxes of documentary evidence to the Egyptian embassy in Canberra, insisting that it be sent to law enforcement authorities prosecuting the trial. Soon after the charge was, according to media reports, reduced from manslaughter to "causing death by mistake" and people smuggling. The Australian embassy in Cairo took a close interest in the trial, which was reportedly held in a closed national security court. There was little reporting of proceedings.

    In December Quassey's sentence of seven years' imprisonment was announced - two for people smuggling and five for the accidental manslaughter of 353 people. No details of the evidence presented, or of witnesses, have been made public.

    Living through the SIEV X inquiry process for two years has shaken my trust in the integrity of Australia's machinery of government.

    As a former senior public servant who worked for 30 years in two sensitive national security departments (Foreign Affairs, and Prime Minister and Cabinet), I had always assumed there was some bedrock of honour that would impose moral limits on what government agencies might do; that there were administrative safeguards and implicit value-based understandings that certain kinds of conduct would be recognised as intolerable and quickly brought to public attention by responsible officials. However, after seeing how the Senate's attempts to uncover the truth about SIEV X were blocked by the Government, that faith has gone. I now think that practically anything is possible at the national security level.

    Many senior officials can now be induced or pressured to help sustain a whole-of-government cover-up, as long as they can convince themselves that the issue is about national security.

    This is an edited extract from A Certain Maritime Incident - the sinking of SIEV X, by Tony Kevin. Published today by Scribe, RRP $32.95.


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