Forced aboard at gunpoint

Lindsay Murdoch
SMH
25 October 2001

'Where are my babies?' ... These three Iraqi sisters - Zahra, 6, Fatima, 7, and Aiman, 9 - died in the tragedy. Their father, Ahmed Alzalimi, (below right, with Ali Mahdi who also lost his three daughters) was awaiting them in Australia.

By Lindsay Murdoch, Herald Correspondent in Jakarta

Indonesian police pointed guns at asylum seekers who wanted to get off an overcrowded and leaking fishing boat bound for Australia before it sank drowning 356 people, survivors said yesterday.

They said more than a dozen police were protecting a well-known people smuggler, Abu Quassey, when he escorted the asylum seekers, mostly Iraqis, to the boat off Sumatra last week.

The survivors said many of them demanded to leave the 19-metre wooden boat and to be given back the money they had paid Quassey because the boat was rotting and too deep in the water to go safely to sea after 421 people had boarded.

One of the survivors, Kareem-Jabar, from Iraq, whose eight-year-old son drowned, said Quassey smashed the butt of his gun over the head of another Iraqi who wanted to take his wife and two young children off the boat.

The family was among those who drowned when the boat split open in huge waves in the Java Sea last Friday while trying to reach Christmas Island.

The Indonesian Navy confirmed yesterday that the boat sank in Indonesian waters.

Mr Kareem-Jabar, 25, said more than a dozen police were standing on a jetty when the asylum seekers boarded small boats in groups of 25 and were taken to the vessel, which was then anchored off Sumatra.

"When most of us saw the boat was too dangerous we wanted to get off and get our money back," he said. "But several police in smaller boats pointed their guns at us. The police were protecting the smugglers. Quassey held a walkie-talkie and had four associates with him."

Abu Quassey, aged about 32, is a well-known people smuggler. He has kept a high profile in Jakarta, often meeting people trying to reach Australia in a McDonald's and openly meeting asylum seekers in detention centres.

Survivors estimated that they paid Quassey, an Egyptian operating out of Jakarta, hundreds of thousands of dollars for the boat trip that he promised them would reach Australian waters.

Another of the survivors, Mohammed Zaeer, 26, said that when the boat sailed into open seas many of the asylum seekers pleaded with the Indonesian captain to return to shore.

But he said the captain, who also drowned, told them that if he took them back the police would take all of their money and possessions and put them in jail.

"We were deceived and lied to by Abu Quassey," Mr Zaeer said. "If Abu Quassey comes back to see us we will avenge the deaths of 350 of our people. We will kill him."

Indonesian police have begun an investigation into the tragedy. Asked about the survivors' claims of police involvement, police spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Prasetyo said all police had been ordered to take stern action against people smuggling.

The secretary of Indonesia's Interpol branch, Major-General Dadang Garnida, said authorities in Jakarta have a list of people involved in people smuggling, but Indonesia's laws made it difficult to arrest them unless they were actually caught on a boat and asylum seekers were prepared to testify.

Forty-four survivors of the tragedy who are being cared for at a cheap hotel near Bogor, outside Jakarta, said yesterday they had made a pact to commit suicide unless they were allowed to travel to Australia or another third country.

They appointed a six-months pregnant Iraqi woman, Ruquaia, who lost her husband and two daughters in the tragedy, as their spokeswoman.

Indonesia announced yesterday that Australia would be among nations invited to talks aimed at stemming the flow of illegal migrants through South-East Asia.

The Foreign Minister, Hassan Wirayuda, said illegal people trafficking had become more urgent with the expected arrival of more Afghan asylum seekers after the United States-led attacks in Afghanistan.

"We will take the initiative to hold talks with destination countries and their countries of origin," Mr Wirayuda said. The meeting would be be in Jakarta, probably next month.

Members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations and Middle Eastern countries would also be invited.

Mr Wirayuda urged all countries trying to deal with people smuggling - "be it the origin, transit or destination" - to work closely to combat illegal people trafficking.

He said that Indonesia had "technical limitations controlling the entire coastline. But that should not be interpreted as if we are not serious and unwilling to co-operate with Australia in solving the problem."

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