Survivors' claims of forced passage denied
Vaudine England
South China Morning Post
October 26, 2001

Jakarta -- Police deny allegations they forced asylum seekers at gunpoint on to a boat that subsequently sank, drowning about 350 people -- but they admit "rogue" officers may take bribes from people-smugglers.

Investigators of the people-smuggling trade, which has taken hold in Indonesia over the past year, say the allegation threatens to take the focus away from widespread police culpability across the archipelago.

Interviews on Tuesday at Bogor, south of Jakarta, with some of the 44 survivors made no mention of police pressure with guns. But several survivors later told Australia's Sydney Morning Herald they would not have boarded the small craft had armed police not forced them to. United Nations officials say the claims must be treated with caution, as many of the survivors are traumatised.

"It is possible that some police are bribed by people-smugglers. The syndicates have a lot of money," said Inspector-General Engkesman Hillep, as he rejected the gunpoint claim. "But it's not the police as an institution, just rogue police officers. It is suspected that some police take money. The syndicates have access to hotels, to transport operations, maybe to the navy, maybe to police -- but bad police, rotten police."

Sources involved with the trade told documentary-maker David O'Shea several months ago that police were regularly paid off by the smugglers. "It's a bidding war. The Australian Government is trying to buy the police's favour, but the smugglers have got more money," O'Shea said.

The Australian Government offers training and has built relationships with police in Lombok, West Java and Kupang in West Timor. But a source said their efforts to reach an understanding in Lampung, South Sumatra, had been less successful.

The boat that sank last weekend had set off from Lampung, and it is the police there who are accused of forcing people on to the unseaworthy craft with guns. "There was nothing like that," police chief General Bimantoro said yesterday, adding that police were "not really convinced" about the survivors' testimonies.

The Sydney Morning Herald quoted survivor Jabar, from Iraq, as saying: "When most of us saw the boat was too dangerous, we wanted to get off and get our money back. "Several police in smaller boats pointed their guns at us. The police were protecting the smugglers."

National police spokesman Saleh Saaf said a team had been set up to investigate. Defence Minister Matori Abdul Djalil said tough action would be taken if police involvement was uncovered. The allegations came one day after President Megawati Sukarnoputri lamented her country's bad image overseas


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