Dirty business behind dream to find distant shore

February 23, 2013
Michael Bachelard

AS Julia Gillard stood in Parliament on June 27 last year to make one last, impassioned plea for her Malaysia plan, 11 policemen were swooping on a small apartment in Jakarta and arresting a young Afghan people smuggler.

Both events stemmed from the same awful incident - the sinking almost a week earlier of an asylum-seeker vessel with the loss of 96 lives.

''We have seen too much tragedy,'' Gillard told Parliament, starting a pivotal debate which ended in Labor recommissioning detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island.

Meanwhile, in the cells at Mabes Polri, the Indonesian national police headquarters, the smuggler, Dawood Amiri, was also talking.

An ethnic Hazara man, just 25 at the time, and known among his customers as ''Irfan'', he had been nabbed at home with his pregnant wife and 90 mobile phones, formerly the property of his ''passengers''.

As two Australian Federal Police officers waited in the wings, he admitted that he had helped organise the fatal ship and three others like it, but that he was now willing to expose the network he worked for.

''They didn't beat me, they just used psychological pressure they found I was very soft,'' Amiri told Fairfax Media in one of a series of jail-house interviews over the past month.

Amiri told police he was a middle-man, a ''coordinator''. His big bosses were ''Billu'', real name Javed Mehmud, and an Indonesian former policeman from Ambon known as ''Freddy''. Another man, Sayed Mustafa, was based in Sydney and acted as a ''Hawaladar'', or trusted money-keeper, using his spare-parts business to shroud financial transfers between the syndicates and their customers.

Amiri also named his four fellow ''co-ordinators'' who like him were responsible for corralling the passengers, organising transport and an embarkation point.

But until last Thursday, when he was sentenced to six years in jail plus a $76,000 fine, he remained the only syndicate member arrested.

He accepts his guilt but he is angry. The sentence is too long for an underling, he believes, and the law has focused on him alone while others remain at large.

''This is a set up,'' he says, gesturing at the dingy visiting area at Jakarta's Cipinang prison.

''The people smugglers are happy to sacrifice me. A boat sank and they have to fill the gap but everyone else keeps going on.''

The fatal boat, Amiri insists, was sound but with 207 on board was desperately overcrowded and slow. Even so, agent ''Billu'' was adamant it must sail, because moving such a large group would be a marketing coup.

''That boat, it was going to break the previous record. If it made it to Christmas [Island], Billu said his network would become number one.''

But the boat did not make it. On June 21, amid confusion between the Australian and Indonesian rescue agencies, it tipped over at the mid-point of its voyage.

Only 111 people survived and 96 died, Amiri says, four more than the official count.

Among the dead were two of Amiri's best friends including a man called Faraz, a fellow coordinator. Amiri says he ''swore at God'' that day.

''In that country [Pakistan and Afghanistan], God doesn't help them, and if they are trying to escape and find a better life, he does not help them either.''

But looking for regret among the kingpins of the trade is useless.

''The big guys, they are just businessmen. According to them, the 'sheep' sink, not the men. They don't care.''

When disaster strikes the agents ''all turn their mobile phones off because they know the police will find them''.

Amiri arrived in Indonesia from Quetta, Pakistan, in 2010 without the funds to continue the journey. After a long stint in detention he escaped and began working with the people smugglers in late 2011. In six months he organised more than 400 passengers for four different boats.

The world of the agents is awash with cash. Each passenger pays up to $23,000 to get from Afghanistan or Pakistan to Australia, and the profit margin in each country is at least 50 per cent.

A large part of the cost is bribes for immigration officials and police. At Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta airport, Amiri says there are two ways through.

''Sometimes a bus comes and just takes them [the passengers] through the back gate. Sometimes they go through immigration. The agent contacts their person in immigration and says, '20 people are coming in'. They are told [by the corrupt official], 'Go to counter 13, five and two, these are my men'. The passenger puts $US500 in their passport, closes it and hands it to the officer. [He demonstrates how the immigration officer opens the passport and tips the money into his lap]. It's a big guy they call at the airport, but I don't know who that is.''

The visas are fake, the passports genuine, but soon destroyed.

Also crucial is good information, which is provided by two corrupt senior officials - a police general and a former bureaucrat in the immigration department. Amiri says the policeman - who strongly denied the story when Fairfax Media put it to him - earns $US10,000 for each piece of intelligence.

Perhaps 12 networks operate in Indonesia today. Amiri says the top agents are three brilliant men devoid of conscience - Sayed Abbas aka Haji Irfan, Aman Rezai and Haji Ismail. Abbas is in prison, but still working. The others operate on mobile phones from inside vehicles with heavily tinted windows.

All of them send boats with 100 or more passengers and pocket between $100,000 and $300,000 in personal profit each time.

Amiri refuses to feel bad about his role. He says he did no damage to Indonesia, but helped many of his people escape death, and never forced anyone to take a boat.

Even so, appearing pale the morning after his sentencing, he said an appeal would be ''torture''.

''I'm tired of this. It's wasting time and money. You can't fight with these guys, because they use the law - and they use it in the name of God.''


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