Indonesia police 'aided smugglers'

25 October 2001

Police in Indonesia say they are investigating reports that hundreds of asylum seekers who drowned when their boat sank off the coast of Java had been forced onto the vessel at gunpoint.

Three-hundred-and-fifty migrants lost their lives in the incident; most of them were from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Police officers are alleged to have been bribed by people-smugglers to coerce migrants who were wary of boarding the 19-metre boat. Officials have said it was overcrowded and unfit to sail.

A national police spokesman, Brigadier General Saleh Saaf, said an intelligence team was looking into the allegations.

Thousands of asylum seekers travel to Indonesia each year, using it as a springboard from which to get to Australia.

The police have denied the allegations, and other survivors have said no-one forced them onto the boat, which was headed for Australia.

But one survivor, an Iraqi, said on Wednesday that about 30 police officers armed with pistols and automatic weapons forced passengers onto the wooden boat, even though several did not want to go after seeing its poor condition.

"They said they were willing to kill us," said Achmad Hussein Ali, speaking through a translator. "The police even beat two refugees with their rifle butts."

He said a police boat then escorted the asylum-seekers' boat out of the port.

'Grave concern'

Indonesian national deputy police spokesman Lt Col Prasetyo denied the allegations. "The accusations are not true," he said. "It is our duty to protect the refugees."

A Jakarta spokesman for the United Nations' refugee agency (UNHCR) Raymond Hall, said the authorities must carry out a "really serious investigation" into the claims.

"If there was any complicity from the local authorities ... in actually forcing people to get on the vessel that would be a source of ... grave concern," he said.

Another survivor, Ali Ahmmad, a Kurdish refugee from Iraq, said the police were working with three people-smugglers who were also armed.

International talks

Australia on Wednesday named one of those men and asked Indonesia to extradite him.

"We know who the person was who arranged this particular package of travellers," said Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock. "He put 400 people on a boat 19 metres long that could only take 150 people."

He said the man, who he described as of Egyptian origin, had been behind other people-smuggling operations. He said Australia had passed information on him to Indonesia on several occasions.

Indonesia announced on Wednesday it will host international talks on people-smuggling next month.

Foreign Minister Hasan Wirayuda said the issue was becoming urgent, with the expected arrival of more Afghan asylum-seekers because of the US air strikes.

Australia has taken a hard line against asylum seekers trying to enter the country by sea since late August, when it refused entry to a boatload of mainly Afghan refugees rescued at sea by a Norwegian freighter.

It has since turned away about 1,500 asylum seekers, sending the majority to other countries including Nauru, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea for processing.


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