Book Alleges Govt Cover-Up On Refugee Boat Sinking

Bob Burton
16 August 2004

CANBERRA, Aug 16 (IPS) - Calls for a judicial inquiry into the sinking of a refugee boat on its way to Australia, about three years ago, have been re-kindled following allegations in a new book that the boat may have been the victim of a shadowy Australian government funded 'disruption' programme in Indonesia.

On Oct,19, 2001 the boat, later named 'SIEV-X', sank on its voyage from Indonesia to the Australian controlled Christmas Island, resulting in the deaths of 353 people, mainly Afghan and Iraqi nationals. Only 44 people survived the tragedy.

Former Australian career diplomat, Tony Kevin, alleges that evidence to an Australian Senate committee of inquiry supports the argument that the convicted organiser of the fateful voyage, Abu Quassey, was a '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,' Kevin argues.

Last year, Quassey was sentenced to seven years jail on a conviction of manslaughter by an Egyptian court after he was extradited to Egypt from Indonesia, where he had spent six months in jail for visa violations.

'There is a great deal of evidence that the Australian intelligence authorities were tracking Abu Quassey for several months before the SIEV-X disaster. There's evidence that Quassey's boats were allowed to reach Australia in order to build his reputation as a people smuggler,' Kevin told the 'Australian Broadcasting Corporation Radio.'

'There's evidence that a relative of Quassey arrived in Australia on one of those boats. There's evidence of Quassey working with unspecified Indonesian authorities. And there's evidence of Australia training Indonesian authorities in people smuggling disruption techniques,' added the former diplomat.

Launching 'A Certain Maritime Incident', last week, Kevin described the book as a 'call to arms' for the 'hundreds' of public servants that knew the inside details on what happened to the SIEV-X to come forward. 'I've had the guts to put my neck out to tell the story the way it really is, now you have the guts to come and tell us what you did in the story,' he said.

'The government has managed to put a big invisible 'do not touch' rope around this story and we have to break that taboo,' he told IPS later. While the Senate inquiry gathered some information on what was referred to in government circles as the 'disruption program', Kevin describes it as a euphemism for an operation 'that resulted in the deaths of people and that is what we must never forget.'

Respected senior lawyer and advocate for reform to Australia's refugee laws, Julian Burnside, believes that further investigation into the fate of SIEV-X is required. 'There are enough unanswered questions to justify a judicial inquiry, he said in an interview.

In 2002 the head of the Australian Federal Police which oversaw the 'disruption' program in Indonesia declined to answer Senate committee questions on whether 'tracking devices' had been placed on refugee boats. Police Commissioner Mick Keelty indicated that he would seek 'public interest immunity' protection from responding to such questions.

In the 22 hours between the sinking of SIEV-X and the survivors' eventual rescue by Indonesian fishing boats, approximately 80 people drowned. If a tracking device had been on SIEV-X it is likely that the time and location of the boat's sinking would have been known and enabled a more effective rescue operation.

More troubling for the government have been revelations in the March 2003 book, 'Dark Victory', by two Australian investigative journalists, David Marr and Marian Wilkinson. They revealed that the then minister for immigration, Philip Ruddock, asked Australian government officials at a June 2001 meeting at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta if boats carrying asylum seekers to Australia could be sabotaged. Ruddock has not rejected the reported account of the meeting.

In the 1980's Australian government officers sabotaged boats carrying asylum seekers in Malaysian waters if local government officials considered them seaworthy and forced them to keep heading for Australia.

The government has ignored calls by the Australian Senate for an independent judicial inquiry into all aspects of the 'People Smuggling Disruption Programme', including the fate SIEV-X.

As establishing a judicial inquiry requires the support of the government-dominated House of Representatives, the prospects of an inquiry hinge on the outcome of the next federal election, likely to be held before mid-November.

In mid-June the president of the opposition Labor Party, Carmen Lawrence, told a public forum in Canberra that if it wins the forthcoming election further investigations into the tragedy would be initiated. 'We are also committed to a full independent inquiry into the sinking of SIEV-X,' she said.

Burnside believes that either the government turned a blind eye to the reality of the disruption program or that over two days its massive air and sea surveillance operation, codenamed Operation Relex, failed to detect the small fishing boat and the survivors. 'If those two possibilities exhaust the realistic range then I don't think the government wants either,' he said.

Burnside said that he was 'haunted' by the possibility that boats may have been sabotaged. 'They say that where there is smoke there is fire. Sometimes where there is smoke there is an arsonist. It just leaves you feeling pretty uncomfortable and it does warrant being looked at more closely,' he said.

In launching the book, Professor of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University, Dr William Maley, said the SIEV-X tragedy highlighted the heartlessness of Australian political leaders.

'One of the greatest indictments of political leadership in this country ... in respect of the whole issue of asylum seekers has been the rank incapacity of the members of the political elite to put themselves in the shoes of the people not fortunate enough to live in Australia,' he said. (END/2004)


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