29 October 2003
Australian and Egyptian authorities believe Abu Quassey is responsible for the deaths of 343 men, women and children. Jackie Dent reports from his Cairo trial.
Accused people-smuggler Abu Quassey stood smoking and talking to his supporters through the bars of a large cage inside Cairo's Abdeen District Court last Saturday. His wife Linda sat next to the cage, their daughter asleep on her lap. An Australian embassy representative sat nearby, next to a badly disguised Australian policeman. Both politely referred all enquiries back to Canberra.
"They are using me as a scapegoat because in Indonesia they could never get to those who were fully involved," said Quassey, chatty and relaxed, waiting for his trial to start. "The Australians have nothing to do with this case. They are using the Egyptians' ignorance."
It has been a long journey for the Egyptian-born Quassey to face trial over his alleged role in the October 2001 disaster, in which 353 people drowned when the overcrowded fishing boat known as SIEV X sank en route to Australia. Indonesian police arrested Quassey (or Moataz Ataya Mohammed Hassan, as he is also known) in November 2001 but, because Indonesia has no people-smuggling laws, the only charges that would stick were for visa violations. He left prison in January this year and went into detention pending extradition to Egypt.
The prosecutor-general of Egypt, Counsellor Maher Abdelwahed, said Quassey escaped and fled to Saudi Arabia, where Interpol captured him. However, a spokesman for Australian justice minister Chris Ellison told The Bulletin that Quassey was placed into the custody of Egyptian authorities in Indonesia for deportation on April 24. Quassey arrived in Cairo on April 27 and has been in prison ever since, facing manslaughter and people-smuggling charges.
Quassey told The Bulletin he was not a people-smuggler, saying he worked as a translator. He believes refugees are being pressured by Australia to say he organised the trip. "Those eyewitnesses who saw me translating; they could've got the idea that I was involved in the operation," he said.
When pressed about whom he was working for, Quassey said they were Arabs and Indonesians but he couldn't remember their names. He said some of them had "high connections". Were they Indonesian police? He didn't know. He never saw uniforms. Were there any Australians involved? He says no but adds that some of the men he worked for may have been dual nationals.
Once Judge Issam Matarid took his seat, Quassey's demeanour shifted. Chief prosecutor Ramy Beshir told the court the evidence included statements from SIEV X survivors plus people from three previous voyages. The statements mentioned that Quassey had forced people aboard the boat at gunpoint after they complained about the boat being dangerous. Beshir said Australian Federal Police had been to Sweden and were extraditing Khaleed Daoed, an alleged accomplice of Quassey's.
Quassey's lawyer, Mohammad Abdelatty, said his client was Daoed's translator. He concluded by saying he hadn't bothered looking at the Australian statements as "the incident happened in Indonesian waters".
The statements he was referring to were in the five large blue folders, video tapes and a tube sitting on the bench next to the judge.
Australian authorities have taken an active interest in this case: three days after Quassey first appeared on September 6, ambassador Robert Newton met Abdelwahed to offer the prosecution assistance. According to Abdelwahed, Newton told him the Egyptians would have to formally request more evidence and advised them on what to ask for. Abdelwahed told The Bulletin that he had agreed to Newton's request for the trial to be postponed until this evidence had been submitted.
The Bulletin was not allowed to look at the statements but Abdelwahed said they included testimonies from survivors and "from people who refused to get on the ship".
Ellison's spokesman said while it was illegal to disclose any information about a mutual assistance request, he could confirm the AFP had discussed with Egyptian authorities what material they could provide. "Australian authorities will not be taking part in the prosecution of Abu Quassey ... It is up to the Egyptian authorities to determine how they will use the material provided by Australia."
The judge will release his verdict on December 27. Quassey faces three to seven years in jail if found guilty.