Canberra pressed on people smuggler
By Bob Burton
Online Asia Times
11 January 2003

CANBERRA - The Australian government is under increasing public pressure to ensure that self-confessed people smuggler Abu Quessay - temporarily being held by Indonesian authorities - faces charges over the 2001 sinking of a boat carrying hundreds of asylum seekers.

A total of 353 asylum seekers, most of them Iraqis, drowned when the boat, code-named SIEV-X by the Australian military [sic], sank in international waters on its way from Indonesia to Australia's Christmas Island on October 19, 2001. A row has since erupted over Australia's role in "disruption" operations against people smuggling to its shores, including the fate of the SIEV-X whose journey Quessay has been linked to. Australian police has issued arrest warrants for him.

Quessay, an Egyptian national, was released on January 1 after serving a six-month sentence in the Cipinang prison in Indonesia for unrelated immigration charges. Indonesian officials have temporarily detained Quessay, also known as Mootaz Attia Mohammad Hasan, in an immigration detention center pending decisions about possible further charges or his deportation to Egypt.

There is thus an opportunity for the Australian government to go after Quessay. But former Australian diplomat Tony Kevin, who has pursued inconsistencies in the government explanation of what was known about the SIEV-X, doubts that Canberra really wants Quessay to tell a court the full story of the fateful journey.

"This constant focus on people-smuggling leads the Australian Federal Police to forget that we are talking about the deaths of 353 human beings," he said. "I remain very suspicious that until the AFP get their head around the real issue, which is accountability for 353 human deaths, we are not going to get an adequate Australian law-enforcement response," he added.

In an attempt to play down the prospects of Quessay being brought to justice over the sinking of the SIEV-X , government officials have resorted to off-the-record briefings of Jakarta-based journalists of Australian news outlets.

According to one report this week, unnamed "officials" claim that Indonesian prosecutors "lack the legal power to lay charges of manslaughter caused by negligence against Hasan". The report claims that even if Quessay were extradited to Australia, "officials say the prosecution would be limited to vessels he allegedly organized that entered the Australian immigration zone".

By implication, this would exclude the sinking of the SIEV-X, which went down in international waters. This is despite the AFP issuing an Interpol warrant that related to the attempt to smuggle refugees to Christmas Island in Australian territory aboard the SIEV-X.

An AFP spokeswoman insists that the warrant for Quessay in relation to the SIEV-X remains valid and actively pursued. "We have got the warrants out there and we are after this guy but we are not in a position to say anything else," she said.

But while Australian officials have been busy briefing journalists in Indonesia, they remain tight-lipped and have opted for a low profile in Australia. Kevin believes the briefings are little more than government spin-doctoring. "If there was just one Australian citizen on that boat, I'm sure that the response would be very different," he said. "That they [the AFP] haven't bothered to offer any public response to any of the questions we have been asking since January 1 about what is happening to Quessay is appalling."

Kevin believes the Australian government is wary of risking Quessay revealing details of the inner workings of the Australian government's disruption operations to disrupt smuggling of people headed for the country.

For its part, the Australian Federal Police gained funding for a US$3 million "People Smuggling Strike Team" to be run in conjunction with the Indonesian police to gain intelligence on and disrupt people smuggling operations.

Last month, the Australian Senate passed a motion - despite opposition from the government members - calling on the Australian and Indonesian governments to ensure that Quessay is brought to justice. Just prior to the Senate debate, the Australian police announced that warrants for the arrest of Quessay had been issued for his role in organizing the doomed SIEV-X. But it claimed that it "was not aware of the identity of SIEV X or its departure point or time of departure, nor does it have any specific knowledge of where it sank".

However, in answers released on Thursday to a series of questions tabled in the Senate committee in November, AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty revealed that Royal Australian Navy investigators had "obtained information from the company found to have owned SIEV-X". He did not reveal who the owner was, or the real name of the boat.

Despite the AFP confirming [sic] in late November "the practice" of placing radio tracking devices on suspected people-smuggling boats, they have refused to discuss whether there was one on SIEV-X. That could have provided precise information on where the boat sank.

If Quessay is deported, the likelihood that the four Australian warrants for his arrest can be executed depends on him traveling to a country such as Singapore or Thailand that has an extradition treaty with Australia. While there are no direct flights from Jakarta to Egypt, it is still possible he could successfully evade being arrested.

Said Kevin: "Surely by now we should be seeing official press releases, official statements by the relevant Australian authorities, not unsourced views from unnamed officials in Jakarta."

(Inter Press Service)

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