SIEV-X trial prompts call for formal inquiry

PM - Wednesday, 8 June , 2005 18:15:06
Reporter: Lisa Millar

(click here to listen)

MARK COLVIN: When the rickety vessel that Australian authorities codenamed SIEV-X capsized in 2001, 353 men women and children drowned with it.

Today, after a three-week trial, an Iraqi refugee was found guilty of people smuggling in the SIEV-X case.

Khaleed Daoed helped organise the boatload of asylum seekers to sail from Indonesia to Christmas Island.

But despite the conviction of one central figure, refugee advocates say the trial has simply raised more questions, ones which can only be answered by a formal inquiry.

Lisa Millar reports.

LISA MILLAR: It was one of the worst maritime disasters in the waters off Indonesia.

The ill-fated SIEV-X with 400 asylum seekers onboard capsized between Sumatra and Christmas Island in October 2001.

Among the dead, 146 children.

Those who survived clung to debris in the water for more than 20 hours.

Today, the only man charged in Australia was found guilty for his role in the people smuggling operation.

The judge repeatedly reminded the jury Khaleed Daoed was not on trial over the deaths. The allegations against him were over the role he played in organising the smuggling attempt.

He'd charged up to $1,000 for a seat on the boat and told the passengers the route was safe.

Survivors had told the court when they first saw the boat it was so crowded it sat low in the water. Inside they found it hard to breathe.

Sue Hoffman from the West Australian Refugee Alliance had helped a group of survivors travel to Brisbane for the start of the case. Outside court today she read a statement from one of the men.

SUE HOFFMAN: He's a man who lost 14 members of his family when SIEV-X sank.

He said: The trial was very sad and it hurt us deeply. I beg Australia as a human, as one of this society, to find the truth and to give back our right.

LISA MILLAR: Daoed had pleaded not guilty and told Australian police he'd only been acting as an interpreter.

The Supreme Court jury took two days to reach its verdict. The 38-year-old Iraqi goldsmith could face 20 years in jail.

But those who've been watching the case say a guilty verdict has done nothing to answer the questions they have about the disaster, including the claims from survivors that other boats were in the area but didn't try to rescue them.

SUE HOFFMAN: Most of the survivors when they were in the water for a total of about 20 hours before being rescued, they reported seeing two large boats and a smaller vessel in the night that shone search lights on the people in the water. At that point there were about 100 people still alive. The boats shone the search lights on the people, on the debris, on the wreckage. As some of the survivors tried to swim towards those boats they turned around and went away and left them to die.

LISA MILLAR: An Indonesian smuggling agent is already serving a jail term over SIEV-X after being convicted by an Egyptian court in December 2003.

The disaster occurred in the middle of the federal election campaign and quickly became a hot political issue.

Refugee advocates have campaigned for a full inquiry into the circumstances of the SIEV-X sinking amid claims, strenuously denied by the Federal Government, that authorities were aware of its fate.

SUE HOFFMAN: I think it's good obviously that this has occurred, that something to do with SIEV-X has been heard about publicly and I hope that the court case itself will raise public awareness about this issue because it's probably one of the largest maritime disasters to which Australia has had any relationship whatsoever.

LISA MILLAR: The Federal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock says the conviction provides solace to those who lost family members.

PHILIP RUDDOCK: People is a very serious offence but it ends as tragically as SIEV-X did with so many people losing their lives, those responsible ought to be held accountable, and that's what we've been determined to ensure happens. That's the reason prosecutions were initiated.

MARK COLVIN: Philip Ruddock ending Lisa Millar's report.


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