Trial spotlights Australia's migrant policy

David Fickling in Sydney
The Guardian (UK)
5 April 2004

A man accused of organising a people-smuggling voyage which led to the deaths of more than 350 asylum seekers is to go on trial in Brisbane this week in a case which will raise questions about Australia's hardline immigration policy.

The drownings remain a sensitive political issue, not least because they happened during the biggest maritime surveillance operation in the country's history. Despite intelligence suggesting the boat was dangerously overloaded, no rescue mission was sent out.

The accused is an Iraqi, Khaleed Daoed, 35, alleged to have helped recruit passengers for the voyage of the boat that has become known as Siev-X (an acronym for suspected illegal entry vessel X).

The Indonesian fishing boat sank between Java and northwestern Australia in October 2001, killing all but 45 of the passengers on board.

The Australian federal police commissioner, Mick Keelty, admitted the tragedy had helped to dry up the departure of asylum boats in the last few months of 2001.

Siev-X left Bandar Lampung in southern Sumatra on October 18 2001 bound for Christmas Island, an Australian territory 1,700 miles west of Darwin. The 30-metre wooden fishing boat, whose three decks had a combined area smaller than a standard tennis court, was loaded with 421 passengers who had each paid around $1,000 (550) for their passage.

A group of 23 Afghan Hazara on board were so concerned about the risk of sinking that they got off the boat as it passed through the Sunda straits near Java. The day after it set sail, the boat sank in stormy waters 70 miles south of Java, killing 146 children, 142 women and 65 men.

Tony Kevin, a former Australian ambassador to Poland and Cambodia who has campaigned for a judicial inquiry into the tragedy, said the government viewed unstable boats as a border protection problem rather than as potential maritime emergencies.

A handful of the survivors of the sinking now live in Australia and are expected to allege that armed, uniformed men had been involved in cramming more people on to the ship before it departed.

Australian police officers in Jakarta at the time cooperated with Indonesian police in organising "strike teams" to prevent people-smuggling boats departing.

But Kevin Enniss, an informant and self-confessed people smuggler, has admitted on Australian television that he had paid Indonesians to scuttle refugee boats close to shore as a deterrent.

Mr Keelty told a senate inquiry that the Australian police's agreement with Indonesian police had broken down at the time of the disaster, and admitted that it was hard to know what was being done in the name of disruption.

Abu Quassey, the main organiser of the voyage, was sentenced to seven years for people smuggling and homicide by a Cairo court in December. Mr Daoed is said to have been his accomplice, but will not be tried on homicide charges because the Australian government denies that Siev-X ever entered its jurisdiction.

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