AUSTRALIA: Smuggler Jailed But Iraqi Boat People Wrangle Rages On

Bob Burton
Inter Press Service (IPS)
15 July 2005

CANBERRA, Jul 15 (IPS) - The sentencing of a former Baghdad goldsmith for helping organise a people-smuggling operation that ended in tragedy has not quelled controversy over the Australian government's role in the October 2001 drowning of 353 Iraqi asylum-seekers on their way to this country from Indonesia.

On Thursday, Queensland Supreme Court Judge Phil McMurdo imposed a nine-year prison sentence on Khaleed Daoed for helping organise the ill-fated voyage but that may only have raised once again questions of what the Australian government knew of the fateful voyage of the boat, SIEV-X.

At the heart of the controversy is the Australian government's 'disruption programme' that funds and trains Indonesian officials to stop people-smuggler boats entering Australian territory.

The voyage of the SIEV-X was the last major attempt by a people-smuggler boat to enter Australia.

Tony Kevin, a former Australian career diplomat and author of the award-winning book on the affair, 'A Certain Maritime Incident', believes there are far too many unanswered questions about what happened. ''This is a moral issue, that if our system of law and respect for life means anything then we have got to expose this,'' he said.

One unresolved question is whether electronic 'tracking devices' were placed on the SIEV-X, and that they may have enabled Australian naval vessels to monitor the movement of unauthorised boats in the area even if only via Indonesian officials.

In 2002, the head of the Australian Federal Police, Mick Keelty, who oversaw the disruption programme in Indonesia, claimed ''public interest immunity'' and refused to answer Senate committee questions on the issue of tracking devices.

In the course of Daoed's committal hearing trial witnesses told of the close involvement of the Indonesian military with the organiser of the voyage, Abu Quessey.

One witness, Karim Al-Saaedy, told the court that Quessey asked him and several other Iraqi refugees who had paid for a place on SIEV-X to join him for breakfast at a major hotel. At the breakfast Quessey introduced him to the Indonesian coast guard officer responsible for Sumatra, where SIEV-X departed from.

Faris Kadhem, a survivor who testified at Daoed's committal hearing, told of seeing three ''metal boats'' approach and shine lights on the approximately 200 survivors floating in the water the night after the SIEV-X sank, before turning away and leaving them to their fate. The next day Indonesian fishing boats rescued 45 survivors.

Kevin believes that if a tracking device was on SIEV-X it is likely that the time and location of the boat's sinking was known and could have enabled a rescue operation.

More troubling for the Australian government were the revelations by two Australian investigative journalists, David Marr and Marian Wilkinson in their March 2003 book, 'Dark Victory'. They reported that the then Minister for Immigration, Philip Ruddock, asked Australian 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 report of the meeting.

When news of the tragedy first emerged during an election campaign centred on asylum seekers, conservative Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, insisted the boat sank in ''Indonesian waters'' and therefore was the responsibility of Indonesian authorities.

However an internal government diplomatic cable, written the day after the survivors were rescued, revealed the government knew SIEV-X sank in international waters within the Australian surveillance zone. The cable was only released, with major deletions, in February 2003.

Despite this the Australian government has steadfastly maintained that the ''precise'' location of the sinking was unknown. In a June 2005 media release the Minister for Justice, Senator Chris Ellison confirmed, for the first time, that SIEV-X sank in international waters. A spokeswoman for Senator Ellison did not respond to a request from IPS on the reason for the change.

In September 2002, the then leader of the Opposition in the Senate, John Faulkner, blisteringly accused the government of hiding behind security protocols with Indonesia, to conceal information from the parliament. ''Those protocols were not meant as a direct or an indirect licence to kill,'' he told the Senate.

Repeated Senate calls for an inquiry have been ignored. The Leader of the Australian Democrats party Senator Andrew Bartlett, believes the witness accounts of the involvement of the Indonesian military strengthens the case for an inquiry.

''When you combine that with some of the information that the Australian government reluctantly provided to the Senate committee about disruption activities and the connections between the Australian Federal Police and the Indonesian authorities and their refusal to provide other information, then there are clearly many unanswered questions that need investigation,'' he told IPS.

For his part Quessey is now serving a seven-year prison sentence after being convicted by an Egyptian court in December 2003 of negligently causing the deaths of those who perished from the sinking of SIEV-X.

Tony Kevin continues to hope that one day soon a whistleblower will come forward to answer the lingering questions over what happened. ''Will there ever be a whistleblower? You never know, someone might get a conscience,'' he said.


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