Australia's bungles and cover-ups exposed

Natalie O'Brien
June 3, 2012

Released documents reveal an attempt to sing "from the same song sheet".

A SPY working for the Australian Federal Police was the ''confidential source'' who provided a tip-off that an asylum seeker boat carrying 105 asylum seekers was sinking - but the AFP and Australian Customs and Border Protection failed to pass on the information for almost four hours.

A nine-month investigation by The Sun-Herald into the boat - which vanished and is presumed to have sunk after leaving Indonesia on October 3, 2009 - has revealed it was still just 17 nautical miles off the coast of Java when it got into trouble.

Because of the delay, it took almost seven hours before an Indonesian navy ship arrived. By then, it reported back that it could find no accident at that position.

Documents obtained by The Sun-Herald under freedom-of-information laws show it was the Australian embassy in Jakarta that effectively called off the search for the boat, bound for Christmas Island. The embassy told Australia's search and rescue agency that ''diplomatic channels'' had told it ''the boat was no longer in distress''.

The 105 passengers, all Hazaras fleeing Afghanistan, and three Indonesian crew have never been heard from since and are presumed to have perished.

The investigation has unearthed hundreds of pages of documents held by four federal government agencies, showing the government knew much more about the ill-fated boat than was ever publicly revealed.

The documents show the AFP tried to delete any information that would link it to the boat or to its spy who, it reveals in correspondence to Customs, was not ''officially receiving protection under a program conducted by the AFP''.

The documents show up numerous contradictory statements made during the past two years, and that the AFP and Customs appear to be blaming each other for the delay in mounting a rescue mission.

Customs says the ''originating agency'' - without naming the AFP - did not give permission to release the boat's co-ordinates until it had come up with a set of words explaining how it knew about the boat without revealing its confidential source. That, according to Customs, caused the four-hour delay. But the AFP has denied this. Its spokeswoman said it immediately alerted Customs.

One FOI document reveals the AFP fought to conceal its involvement in the events by removing all references to it in any documents released by Customs. An AFP spokeswoman denied any cover-up.

Both the AFP Commissioner, Tony Negus, and the head of Customs and Border Protection, Michael Carmody, have refused to be interviewed about the missing boat.

News that the boat had gone missing first came to public attention in December 2009 when a Hazara community leader in Australia, Hassan Ghulam, spoke to the media about calls he had received from distressed relatives looking for their missing family members.

But in January 2010, three months after the boat vanished, a spokesman for the Department of Home Affairs denied knowing anything about the boat.

Media attention prompted a review of the government files and the then home affairs minister, Brendan O'Connor, was forced to admit authorities did know a boat was in distress on the same day the boatload of Hazaras was said to have gone missing. But he said they had subsequently received ''credible information'' that the boat had overcome its difficulties.

The formerly secret government documents show the AFP and Customs were receiving daily intelligence reports about the boat before it left Indonesia, that they knew the people smuggler in charge was a man named Hussein, and that he was arrested in Jakarta just three weeks after the boat disappeared. Despite being arrested at Canberra's request, Australia withdrew its extradition request for the people smuggler last month, and he has been released and extradited to Pakistan. Documents obtained from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority also reveal Australian authorities had overheard phone calls from the distressed boat to relatives on Christmas Island. They have never revealed those details.

The boat is one of eight that are believed to have sunk between Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia in the past 2 years.

It has been a ''slow and painful extraction of the truth'', says the former Australian diplomat Tony Kevin, who investigated the sinking of the asylum seeker boat known as SIEV X in 2001. Kevin has written a new book, The Reluctant Rescuers, about boats that have disappeared or crashed on their way to Australia.

''This is an appalling story,'' he told The Sun-Herald, ''suggesting a systemic lack of Australian official compassion and diligence in not acting on a reported rescue-at-sea emergency, but also in not informing the public of the full facts.''


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