Sting that took the venom out of snakeheads
By Mark Baker, Herald Correspondent in Phnom Penh
Sydney Morning Herald
31 August 2002

It was a typical Saturday night in the rowdy restaurant of the Golden Temple Hotel and Casino in the Cambodian port city of Sihanoukville. Few of the patrons would have paid much attention to the group of five Pakistani and Indonesian men and their Cambodian guests who sat at a corner table chatting over a meal and a few drinks.

They had been there for more than two hours when, at about 12.30am, the man who called himself Naeem Ahmad Chaudry finally sealed the deal and passed a bag with $US40,000 ($72,000) in cash to the local police and immigration officers sitting opposite him.

A few minutes later Mr Chaudry and his associates were under arrest and on their way to a prison in Phnom Penh as a "sting" operation, hatched weeks earlier by Australian and Cambodian police officials, reached its denouement.

At almost the same moment, a few kilometres off the coast of Sihanoukville, three speeding Cambodian coastal patrol vessels intercepted an aging timber fishing boat packed with 241 Afghans and Pakistanis, and detained the seven-man Indonesian crew. The boat, with little food or water on board, was just half an hour into its perilous voyage to Australia - through the path of the cyclone season in the South China Sea. [emphasis added]

It was not until several days later, as Australian Immigration Department investigators combed through documents seized from the arrested men, that the extent of the success of the dramatic operation was revealed. They discovered that Naeem Ahmad Chaudry was Hasan Ayoub, the 33-year-old Pakistani who Australian authorities accuse of being one of the top five or six "snakeheads" - people smugglers running the rackets that sent thousands of boat people from Indonesia to Australia.

"It was only when the Australian immigration compliance officers cross-checked the papers that we discovered we had captured one of the most wanted people smugglers in the region," a senior Cambodian official said.

"When we realised it was Ayoub, everyone was surprised and delighted."

This week Ayoub prepared to embark on the next leg of his own long journey to Australia, when a court in Bangkok granted an order for his extradition to face a possible 20-year jail sentence. While he has two weeks in which to appeal against the decision, the Thai court found there was ample evidence to justify his being sent to Australia.

The bust in Sihanoukville, in July last year, revealed the extent to which Australian Federal Police and Immigration Department officers have been able to track, infiltrate and disrupt smuggling networks across the region with the active co-operation of local law-enforcement agencies.

High-level sources in Cambodia have confirmed that a strategy hatched by Australian officials, with the help of police and immigration authorities in Phnom Penh and Bangkok, ensured Ayoub's expected delivery to Australian justice.

After being jailed for five months in Phnom Penh for using fake travel documents, the man who now portrays himself as an innocent carpet trader was to be released last December and deported from Cambodia. But Australian officials, determined to see Ayoub face 13 charges under the Migration Act for his alleged role in sending two boatloads of asylum seekers to Australia, were hamstrung by the absence of an extradition treaty with Cambodia.

Cambodian immigration police delivered the solution. Ayoub was issued with a temporary travel document and an air ticket for his passage home to Pakistan. Then, on December 18, he was arrested in the transit lounge at Bangkok's Don Muang Airport. Thai officials, acting on a warrant issued by the Australian Federal Police, detained him pending Monday's extradition order.

A combination of good luck, good intelligence and close co-operation between government agencies led to the success of the operation in Sihanoukville.

In April last year, Australian officials alerted Cambodian authorities to the possibility of the first attempt to smuggle asylum-seekers to Australia via the largely unpatrolled coastline of southern Cambodia. They reported that an Indonesian boat crewed by suspected smugglers was believed to be heading for Cambodian waters.

At about that time, Australian officers running customs and immigration training programs at Phnom Penh's Pochentong Airport began to notice unusual numbers of Afghans and Pakistanis arriving in small groups.

The first confirmation that a smuggling operation was under way came when a member of Ayoub's syndicate tried to bribe a police commander in southern Kampot province. The $40,000 bribe was declined and authorities in the capital were alerted.

A task force of police, immigration and maritime surveillance officials was established with the support of Australian Federal Police and Immigration Department officers.

According to Cambodian sources, it was agreed that further contacts should be sought with the smugglers to set up the "sting", and the Australians got agreement that no arrests would be made until the boat was ready to leave and the ringleaders could be rounded up.

In late June, after the Indonesian fishing boat was first sighted off the coast, a senior immigration officer in Sihanoukville was approached by a local criminal linked to the smugglers and offered the $US40,000 again to allow the operation to proceed. This time, the offer was accepted.

By the night of July 7, when the Golden Temple meeting was fixed, police and immigration officials had infiltrated Ayoub's syndicate. Agents posing as helpers were even aboard the fleet of mini-buses that brought most of the asylum seekers, who had paid between $5,000 and $10,000 each, from Phnom Penh. [emphasis added]

A few hours earlier, Cambodian officials placed a call to the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh and a team of Australian police and immigration officers immediately drove to Sihanoukville to be on hand once the arrests were made.

[cf: Swoop thwarts new people-smuggling plot]

Back to