Fatal voyage ends in 7 years' jailBy Jackie Dent in Cairo
December 29, 2003
Photo caption: "I am destroyed" . . . Abu Quassey, shown here talking to reporters in January. Photo: Reuters
An Egyptian court has found Abu Quassey guilty of the manslaughter of 353 suspected asylum seekers who drowned when an overcrowded fishing boat on which they were travelling to Australia sank in October 2001 after leaving Java for Christmas Island.
"I'm destroyed," said a distressed Quassey, who immediately lodged an appeal.
Judge Issam Matarid sentenced Quassey, 30, to five years' jail for killing by mistake, and two years for illegal migration to Australia. He was also ordered to pay a fine of 500 Egyptian pounds ($111).
The formal judgement is to be issued in coming weeks but Judge Matarid said the evidence against Quassey had been strong.
"A survivor said that he knew that the boat was not safe enough to carry all those people but Quassey forced him to get on," he said.
(Indeed, survivor statements apparently claim Quassey forced people aboard at gunpoint.)
However, Quassey's family and friends maintained his innocence as they waited to see him in a grubby alleyway at the back of Cairo's Abdeen Criminal Court.
"He was just a translator. There are bigger guys than him. How could he do such a big crime?" asked his older brother, Emam Mohamed Ali, who had travelled to Egypt from Saudi Arabia, where most of Quassey's family lives.
"He's a victim of the Indonesian and Australian police," he said.
Quassey's wife, Linda, tearfully described the verdict as cruel and unfair.
The Justice Minister, Chris Ellison, welcomed the conviction, but said the Australian Government would have preferred Quassey to face an Australian court.
"Seven years imprisonment with hard labour does send a message to people smugglers that if they are caught they will be facing lengthy periods of imprisonment," he said.
Senator Ellison declined to comment on the extent of the sentence because of the pending appeal, but he said a 20-year jail term could apply in Australia for a comparable offence.
The Australian Parliament has also raised questions about the background to the boat's sinking. In December 2002, the Senate called for an independent inquiry into people-smuggling disruption programs operated by the Australian Federal Police, and the role they may have played in the sinking of the boat.
Before being loaded into a prison van, Quassey said he did not know who organised the boat trip, but he did not think Indonesian police were involved.
Quassey has been in custody since November 2001, when Indonesian police arrested him after the crowded boat sank, killing 353 people, mainly Iraqis. Indonesia has no people smuggling laws so he was charged with visa violations and extradited to Egypt in April this year.
Australian authorities have taken an active interest in the Egyptian trial, providing much of the prosecution evidence, including statements from 58 survivors, and from three passengers on each of three previous boats.
Quassey has consistently claimed he was working as a translator, who took up the job as his wife Linda, an Iraqi, spoke Indonesian. He says he acted as a driver and translator for two men, Khaleed Daoed and Mithem Radhia.
Around July or August 2001, Daoed went to see an Indonesian man and Quassey translated. It was at this meeting that Daoed asked the Indonesian man to prepare a boat to take refugees into Australia.
Quassey's appeal will be heard on January 28.