Did Australian Policy Kill 353 Aboard The SIEV X?
MEDIA STATEMENT FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
DID AUSTRALIAN POLICY KILL 353?
While Australian Prime Minister John Howard meets with President George W. Bush and the British Prime Minister Tony Blair to discuss imminent war on Iraq, serious questions are being asked about the way the Howard Government treat those who have fled from such oppression.
The Australian Government might wish no one had ever questioned their responsibility in the SIEV X TRAGEDY but because of the persistant and courageous advocacy of one man TONY KEVIN, Australia's former Ambassador to Cambodia, the 146 children, 142 women and 65 men who died will not be forgotten.
On the 19th of October 2001, a tiny nameless fishing boat carrying over 400 asylum seekers, bound for Australia, sank in international waters. Fearing death in their countries of birth they believed they would find freedom and peace in Australia. They believed in Australia. They wanted to be Australians. They were full of hope. They were so close. And then Australia closed her borders.
Unable to return, unable to remain in Indonesia they were advised to turn to a people smuggler. The smugglers took money and jewellery from these desperate people and then they loaded them onto the rotting boat at gunpoint.
The boat is now known as SIEV X. 353 people died in the SIEV X Tragedy. 146 children, 142 women and 65 men died in horrifying circumstances.
SIEVX: Joining the dots
Text of a talk given by Tony Kevin at the Art Gallery of WA Lecture Theatre as part of Perth International Writers' Festival 8 Feb 2003.
On 23 October, the Senate received the tabled Report of the Committee into a Certain Maritime Incident, chaired by Labor's Senator Peter Cook, which over five months had tried to investigate the children overboard and SIEVX issues. There was a heated, indeed unusually rowdy, debate on the report. Towards the end, Liberal Senator Colin Mason said:
"In the famous words of Jack Nicholson in the film "A Few Good Men":
'You want the truth? You can't handle the truth.' "
"The truth is - sadly for the Labor Party - that people in all the circumstances acted reasonably and conscientiously. There was a failure to correct information in the military chain of command, but there was no grand conspiracy - no material for Oliver Stone at all. Case closed."
But it has since become abundantly clear that the SIEVX case is far from closed. It grows bigger and more disturbing all the time. My conviction strengthens that it will become Australia's Watergate.
I found Senator Mason's choice of quotation strangely apt. I re-viewed A Few Good Men recently - an excellent film. Those words were said in the court-martial, at the climactic moment of the story. A persistent defence lawyer had finally goaded the US Marines' commanding officer at Guantanamo Bay base, Colonel Jessop, into admitting that he had ordered marines under his command to inflict cruel and unlawful punishments on an under-performing marine. When the man died under this ordered torture, Jessop tried to cover up his criminal order. When finally forced to admit it, his defence was that US Marines will do whatever it takes to defend America's borders - even if US civilians cannot handle the truth of the harshness of their methods.
"You want the truth - you can't handle the truth".
I wonder if Senator Mason was conscious of the full implications of his quotation? Because there is a hideous truth that we are in the process of uncovering, about a high probability of Australian government agencies being implicated in the sinking of SIEVX and the death by drowning of 353 of its 397 passengers - including 146 children and 142 women - on 19 October 2001.
Most were Iraqi. Some were Afghan. Many had close family living in Australia - refugee men on temporary protection visas, which did not allow them to bring their families. They died trying to reunite with their husbands and fathers.
Australians are progressively being exposed to this shocking story. The question - how are we handling it ? - is something I will come back to later.
It is clear already that these 353 innocent people died as a result of a deliberate sabotage -indisputably, by grossly overloading their small boat to sinking point, and possibly by other acts of sabotage as well. This action was carried out at the culminating moment of the Australian Government's clandestine people smuggling disruption program in Indonesia, which was aimed at protecting Australia's borders from the entry of unauthorised boat people. I believe that the premeditated sinking of SIEVX was a final deterrent solution, generated under this program.
It did the job. When SIEVX sank on 19 October 2001, the feared overhang of 2500 people waiting in Indonesia to come to Australia dissolved. They never came. On election night, a triumphant John Howard told the ABC's Kerry O'Brien that the boat people crisis was over. Of course he did not admit then - and never has since - that SIEVX was the main reason.
But it is obvious that it was the sinking of SIEVX - not the Tampa incident, not the Pacific detention camps, not the cruel new punitive temporary protection visa laws - that finally did it for Howard. SIEVX nailed home the message that Australian government agencies would literally stop at nothing, to keep unauthorised boat people out of Australia.
It showed these Middle Eastern refugees that Australia was treating them as unarmed invaders - worse than that, as an unwanted product or commodity (I use routine Australian Federal Police (AFP) language here. Remember also the ugly phrase the media were being encouraged to use, "human cargo". We were all being desensitised to our government's cruelty.
Was the mandate to officials: 'Forget every human being's basic right to life. Forget Australia's criminal law, which codifies that right. Forget the Geneva human rights conventions. Just set up the job that has to be done, in a deniable way that leaves no incriminating Australian fingerprints. Use Indonesian police units and others, who are ready to get their hands dirty. Keep us out of it'?
Many of you must be thinking - this cannot be true! Australians do not do such things. But remember the United States-instigated undercover atrocities by specially trained local forces in Central America in the 1980s, which were used as murder squads against leftist regimes and political movements? Remember the techniques used by American and Australian law enforcement agencies to fight organised crime and the drug traffic - to get into the industry using undercover companies, to use these companies to establish market share and then set up "stings" to disrupt and destabilise these industries?
The Australian Federal Police has admitted using the same kinds of techniques against people smuggling. The AFP has systematically, in its own doctrine and practice, criminalised both the smugglers and "the product". It ignores that the latter are human beings, victims of oppression seeking new homes to rebuild their lives. To AFP, they are just illicit cargo to be stopped.
Of course it was never spelled out to us clearly at the time what was actually happening. The truth was too shaming, and so we wallowed in Orwellian euphemisms.
Truth is now emerging from the official fog bit by bit. It is like pulling molars. There is a lot of pain, righteous indignation, attempted intimidation, omission or obfuscation of facts, and downright lying, on the way to the truth. But we are getting there.
There is not time here for a detailed account. Today I will give you highlights.
I started the process of investigation in February 2002. I sensed the public story was not true, it did not hang together. My two submissions in March and April and my testimony on 1 May to the Senate "children overboard" enquiry put SIEVX on the Senate Committee's agenda. I gave the boat a name in my first published piece, in the Canberra Times on 25 March 2002 - "SIEVX', meaning "suspected illegal entry vessel, Unknown". That name has since stuck.
AFP recently admitted that the Australian Government actually know the real name of the boat, and who owned it. But they have not yet told the Senate. AFP also admitted that they have compiled lists of names of the people who embarked, got off in time, died, and survived on SIEVX, but AFP have not yet given the Senate these lists either.
Of course the more we know, the easier it becomes to find out more. That is why from the beginning of this affair government information has been reluctantly drip-fed - as little as possible.
From the beginning, my suspicions went to the two phases of the voyage. First, what had happened in Indonesia, for this boat to embark in so obviously unseaworthy and overloaded a condition? And secondly, what had happened at sea, for the highly resourced Australian border protection military exercise (Operation Relex) not to detect this boat in danger and to take emergency action to try to save lives?
Initially I only had questions and hypotheses, or hunches. I had hardly any facts. I had to put my main initial emphasis on the Operation Relex phase because the Senate "Children Overboard" Committee which started in March 2002 provided a legal venue for asking those questions. I declined to publicly voice my suspicions about the first phase, because I had no evidence then: only intuitive hunches.
Ross Coulthart's path-breaking programs for Channel Nine "Sunday", exposing the self-confessed activities of the Australian people smuggler, police informant, and sinker of boats, Kevin Ennis strengthened my intuition that SIEVX's sinking might not have just been the accidental result of a greedy people smuggler overloading his boat.
Those suspicions hardened into certainty as the Senate Committee proceeded and I saw how systematically and desperately the government was trying to prevent disclosure of the full truth about SIEVX.
Starting in July, with the Senate investigation pretty well stymied by the Government's refusal to field key official witnesses and the refusal to answer questions by those who were allowed to testify, Labor Senate Leader John Faulkner began to focus his questioning on the pre-embarkation phase. He began to question the, until them pretty much unknown, "people smuggling disruption program" being conducted in Indonesia by Australian Government agencies, AFP and DIMIA in particular.
His and CMI Chairman Senator Peter Cook's dramatic unrelenting interrogation of AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty on 11 July was a crucial breakthrough that opened up huge cracks in the government's defence of its disruption program. There followed Faulkner's dramatic Senate questioning of the legality of the disruption program on 23-26 September - posing critically important questions which have never even now been answered by Government Ministers or officials. Then came Senators' resumed interrogations of Keelty and his Minister, Senator Ellison, in November Senate Estimates Committee, when Faulkner opened up the issue of possible placement of an Australian tracking device on SIEVX.
Finally came the two magnificently brave, agreed by all Opposition Parties and Independents, Senate motions of 10 and 11 December. The first called for a full powers independent judicial enquiry into the disruption program and sinking of SIEVX. The second called for greater efforts by Indonesian and Australian authorities to bring Abu Quassey to justice for his role in the sinking of SIEV X.
All of this forensic investigative work by Senators gave me a firm basis by the time of my last public speech, in Adelaide on 14 December, to say confidently what I had long suspected: that Abu Quassey, the self-admitted organiser of the SIEVX voyage, was not a "genuine" people smuggler at all. I suggested he was an undercover sting agent - and that he was probably working with the very people smuggling disruption teams in the Indonesian Police that had been selected, funded, trained and equipped by the Australian Federal Police under Australian Government authority. I made this allegation two months ago, and it has not been disproved.
Let me go back to the earlier stage, of my Senate Committee submissions and testimony in the March-May period. Strenuous efforts were made to discredit me. I was accused of being a conspiracy theorist and a fabulist, with a grudge against the Howard government, and a failed career as a diplomat. I successfully challenged these untrue slanders in the Senate Privileges Committee.
But the purpose was to try to discredit what I was saying about SIEVX, and perhaps also to intimidate me from saying it. I pressed on, strengthened by the growing public support the cause was attracting, especially through the new SIEV X informational website, www.sievx.com.
I have never doubted the need to pursue the truth on this matter, let the chips fall where they may. Not only do we owe it to the 44 survivors and to the many grieving relatives of the 353 dead, to honour their sacrifice and memory. It is also a matter of our self-respect as Australians. If our elected government had a hand in this great crime, no matter how indirectly or deniably, we are honour-bound to uncover that wrong and to apologise for it.
As the Senate enquiry proceeded through its June and July witness testimony, the long wait for supplementary written evidence, and to the final report tabling on 23 October, my colleagues and I became more and more appalled at the systematic and premeditated government tactics to manipulate and spin-doctor the more and more damaging revelations that were coming out, about what the system knew, when it knew it, and what it did or did not do about it.
It is clear now that the government hoped that the complexity of the issue and media fatigue with covering its intimidating detail would in the end kill the story. It sometimes seemed to us that they were succeeding: we had moments of real despair. Mainstream national media blew hot and cold on the issue. It seemed impossible to sustain serious investigative journalism outside the SIEVX website for more than a few weeks, yet this struggle has been going on for a year now. So we focussed more and more of our effort on the website, and hoped that people were reading it.
Just in case they were not and our efforts failed, we asked the National Library to put SIEVX.com on their electronic archive for future historians to access. They generously did so. It will be easy for future historians to research these events, even if we should fail in the short term. As people retire and memoirs are written, consciences will speak and the truth will out: and our SIEVX archival record will be there to back it up.
From the start we were dogged by the credibility issue. Even hard-headed people used to working with and reporting critically on government Ministers and departments have found it really hard to get their minds around a proposition, that Australian Government Ministers and security agencies might have consciously planned and undertaken policies under which there was a good chance that many asylum-seekers would die. Even journalists who think of themselves as tough-minded cling to the notion that Australian governments are basically decent and that any real criminality would quickly be exposed.
But after the falsified "children overboard" photographs and the HIH insurance scandal, this is becoming a much harder proposition to sustain about our culture, especially when the issue concerns asylum-seekers who have been so effectively dehumanised. When lifetime senior careers in government and national security are at stake, Australians sadly are now capable of silence and complicity, involving large numbers of senior people, to conceal truth about criminal malpractice either in big business or in government.
In defence of these self-same politicians and officials - but it isn't really a defence, a crime is still a crime - I think this all developed incrementally, over several years. Initially there was a lot of bluff in the methods of the AFP/DIMIA people smuggling disruption program - leaflets and free T-shirts warning of ruthless people smugglers and sharks and crocodiles, phoney sinking stories later proved false, Kevin Enniss-style 'stings' to fleece people of their savings and hopes, but not take their lives.
It was only when the bluff was called in the climactic month of October 2001 that the final atrocity was unleashed. And we don't know how close or arms-length hand Australian agencies may have had in the final SIEVX disruption project. The truth may well be buried in all the acres of black ink - the censored parts of reports that Senators were not allowed to see.
We do know these facts:
1.. HMAS Adelaide's interception of SIEV 4 on 6-8 October was a major test of the government's new get-tough policy after "Tampa", to try to force boats back to Indonesia. It failed, because 230 brave asylum-seekers on SIEV 4 called the Australian government's bluff. They let their boat sink and Canberra was forced - reluctantly and grudgingly, after a criminally reckless 24 hour tow during which the 230 people should never have been left on board their sinking vessel - to instruct "Adelaide" to rescue them from the water when it finally foundered.
2.. On 7 October, a PM and C options brief warned the Prime Minister that there was an overhang of 2500 "suspected unauthorised arrivals" (asylum-seekers) waiting in Indonesia to come to Australia and that this must be prevented "at all costs".
3.. On 12 October the PM and C People Smuggling Taskforce minutes record that the Taskforce directed member agencies to examine "scope for beefing up" people smuggling disruption activities.
4.. On 18 October, SIEVX left Bandar Lampung with 421 people on board. The empty boat had been sailed around to Bandar Lampung from Cilicap on the south coast of Java over the previous 4 days. At some recent time - maybe during those 4 days - a makeshift chipboard upper deck was added to the 19.5 by 4 metre boat. Fishing boats of this length had never before carried more than 230 people.
In fact these boats' safe design load was equivalent to about 100 people, so SIEVX was carrying four times its design load. Fitting an upper deck meant that double the previous loads - 421 people to be exact -could be crammed onto SIEV X, thereby also obviously rendering it totally unstable and unseaworthy.
But hang on, sceptics may say: We already know that many asylum-seeker boats leaving Indonesia in 2001 were leaky and overcrowded, and that many sank for this reason. So, might SIEVX's sinking have simply been the largest-ever tragic accident of this kind? Might it simply have been the result of a greedy people smuggler overloading his boat to maximise his profits ?
The answers are No, and No. There is mounting evidence from survivors of previous voyages and this voyage that Abu Quassey was not a "real" people smuggler, but a witting or unwitting "sting" operator who worked in collusion with Indonesian police disruption teams to set up phoney voyages sabotaged to fail through engine breakdown or sinking. The purpose was to deter people-smuggling (while making money from asylum-seekers on the way).
Quassey had initially been a people-smuggler's driver. I believe he was recruited by Indonesian police disruption agents and set up in business in 2000. He certainly became rich very quickly. Two early successful voyages established his reputation as a people -smuggler. Many later attempted voyages failed.
He was never harassed by police though his passport status was known to be vulnerable. I believe he was being protected in high places. Even after being denounced to DIMIA as a recklessly unsafe people smuggler whose practices were likely to kill people, by a group of former passengers in Australia in January 2001, he went on undisturbed, growing his business while safer more responsible people smugglers were being arrested or put out of business. By April 2001 the industry was effectively dominated by unsafe people smugglers - quite possibly by this time, many were AFP or Indonesian police disruption agents.
We know from SIEVX survivors that Quassey offered free places on SIEVX to people who had lost their savings on his previous unsuccessful voyages. To be so anxious to load up SIEVX that he was giving away free places in it is hardly the act of a greedy people smuggler.
Quassey was supported by some Middle Eastern assistants and by large numbers of supporting Indonesian police. He escorted in his car a convoy of five buses that drove 421 people overnight, from Cisarua (Bogor) across Western Java and by ferry across the Sunda Strait at Merak, to a police-run hotel near Bandar Lampung, Sumatra. To make such a conspicuous road and ferry journey he would have had to have police cooperation. The 421 passengers hid out for the day in the police hotel. . Police then took the buses to a bay where they loaded the people onto SIEVX by launch-loads, using armed force, according to many survivors.
Quassey had a latest-model police radio-telephone and a gun. He helped direct the forced loading. He beat some frightened passengers who, seeing the overcrowding, tried to get back ashore.
He lied to passengers that they would be joining another larger boat for the trip to Christmas Island; they never did. One particular group of passengers (Mandaean Christians) were warned by a co-religionist assistant of Quassey's to get off the boat as soon as they safely could: they did so, at the Karakatu (Krakatoa) islands near Bandar Lampung. They warned the others as they were disembarking.
The sinking: the engine failed and the boat lost way. Five minutes later the overloaded and top-heavy boat simply rocked itself over in the strong ocean swell. It quickly broke up - there had been a large crack in the hull, suggesting the structure had been weakened.
I believe that Indonesian police tracked the boat, probably by using an Australian tracking device concealed on the boat and previously supplied to them by AFP. How else would they have found the sinking site so easily?
Survivors report that seagoing police or military patrol boats (one or two) inspected the wreckage in the early evening a few hours after the sinking, using searchlights. They made no attempt to rescue survivors.
I believe these were Indonesian police boats. It is likely that they gave the coordinates to Indonesian fishing boats who went out and rescued 44 remaining survivors the next day. They claimed improbably to have seen floating wreckage.
The rescue location coordinates, in intenational waters 51.5 nautical miles south of Indonesia, are on official Indonesian harbormaster records.
No police have been arrested. There has been no enquiry. Abu Quassey admits organising the voyage. But he refused to tell media who his Indonesian police or military accomplices were. He was visibly frightened by the question.
I believe there is no doubt that it was a planned sabotage operation, and that numbers of Indonesian police worked with Quassey on it.
The next question is, how can an Australian causal connection be proved ?
The answer is that I cannot yet prove it but there is enough multi-source "smoking gun" indicative evidence to make it a very likely hypothesis. There is certainly a case to be answered that merits a full-powers independent judicial investigation, where questions cannot be refused or evaded as in Senate Committees. This is why the Senate passed its motion passed on 10 December.
The evidence falls into three subsets: motive, means, and the record of concealment and misrepresentation in official testimony .
As I have already indicated, SIEVX's sinking was enormously convenient in terms of timing, scale of death and deterrent shock value to the Howard Government. It came at a time of pressure. An election was imminent. Howard had to show that his aggressive border protection strategies were working. The Pacific solution was legally shaky and being ridiculed. Adelaide's interception of SIEV 4 (the "kids overboard "SIEV) had been a humiliating mission failure. The orders given to Adelaide had deeply disturbed the Navy's sense of integrity.
SIEVX sank a week later. Asylum-seeker voyages dried up within a couple of weeks. Howard won the election on tough - and successful - border protection policies. Yet Beazley nearly won - the election was close.
Another major humiliating border protection failure might have cost Howard the election. Imagine if 397 SIEVX passengers had been rescued by the Australian Navy and had to be looked after by Australian authorities. Imagine the mockery from the Labor Party. It was essential that the people of SIEVX should not come into contact with Operation Relex.
The AFP's People Smuggling Disruption Program was an effective, initially clandestine instrument, in place in Indonesia since at least September 2000. Now that its cover has been blown, we are assured there was nothing sinister about it: but if so, why have its details been so carefully concealed for so long? It operated under a Protocol (still not public, but probably quite general and bland in its wording) signed at that time that hung off an existing Australian - Indonesian police cooperation agreement against organised crime.
Since 1999, the Australian Government and AFP had talked up the idea that people smuggling is a major category of organised transnational crime.
But the reality before 2000 was that people smuggling was mostly water taxi work, combining the boats and crews of out-of-work Indonesian fishing boats with the salesmanship of Middle Eastern-based entrepreneurs seeing the chance to provide a service to people in distress, and to make a dollar.
It is no coincidence that as AFP interest and budgets for anti-people smuggling activity in Indonesia heightened, so the claimed "organised crime" character of people smuggling began to grow.
In one sense it is true, because the AFP's network of undercover informants - actually they were far more than informants, they were active sting operators -were getting into the industry and increasing market share through favoured Indonesian police treatment. Already by late 2000, Kevin Enniss was offering his services as a people smuggler, and falsely claiming he could get people to Australia.
A still current AFP Association webpage survey of AFP activities in 2001 writes unabashedly of the need for AFP "to fund "sting" operations, whereby the AFP establishes small shipping companies in strategic locations known for smuggling illegal immigrants".
The AFP has publicly defended Enniss's claims to be a people smuggler as necessary cover for his information-gathering. But Enniss himself admitted to Channel Nine "Sunday" investigators that he organised voyages, took money from passengers, and then disabled and sank his own boats.
I believe this was all part of a larger plan, to discredit people smuggling as a dangerous and extortionate trade with which asylum seekers should not engage. At the same time as the Australian Embassy in Jakarta gave away free T-shirts and leaflets warning asylum-seekers against the dangers of using people smugglers people like Enniss - with at least some AFP knowledge and approval - were in business as people smugglers, with an understood mandate that it was OK to entrap and fleece people, thereby proving the Embassy warnings were right.
Enniss had migration problems in Indonesia - he ran into trouble with the regular police who detected his people smuggling activity - but the Embassy made representations on his behalf to allow him to stay. Obviously his work was seen as important. There were others like him, no doubt still are, whose cover has not been blown as Enniss' cover was blown accidentally by the "Sunday" program.
The other dimension of the AFP People Smuggling Disruption Program that underpinned the whole murky operation was the set of five Indonesian Police Special Intelligence Units (INP SIU). Under the auspices of the Protocol, the AFP in 2000 funded 20 Indonesian Police (POLDA) officers, who were selected by AFP and tasked to set up five SIU. These 20 men were trained intensively by AFP officers in anti-people smuggling operations. They comprised four officers each in five POLDA jurisdictions, two in West Java and three in Eastern Indonesia. We still do not know their names. We would like to.
Their training took place in Bali in October 2000 and included investigation techniques, surveillance, and information management. They received funds and equipment kits from the AFP. Presumably these 20 men went back and set up their own anti-people smuggling teams in POLDA.
According to Keelty, the Protocol allowed for the AFP and POLDA to exchange advice regarding "target selection, technical and management support of operations, informant management, information facilitation and assistance in financial reporting".
Remember, people smuggling was not and is not illegal in Indonesia. The AFP basically had set up what were in effect their own teams of mercenaries - a police force within POLDA, that did what its Australian trainers and paymasters in general terms wanted done.
But the AFP in the end may have created a monster - I think of Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer's apprentice in the Disney movie. Keelty admitted on 11 July that AFP paid POLDA to disrupt people smuggling. But he also admitted that AFP had no idea how their POLDA teams went about their tasks.. He said that if POLDA units had sabotaged engines as a way of disrupting people smuggling, AFP would not approve, but would not know about it either.
This revealing exchange, prompted by Senator Cook, demonstrates the philosophy of plausible deniability that lay at the heart of the AFP disruption operation in Indonesia: keep in regular contact with your Polda colleagues, hint at them what you want done, give them any equipment they need, but don't be around when it happens , and make sure you only know as much about it as you want to and only when you want to: remember Keelty's phrase: " target selection, technical and management support of operations, informant management, information facilitation".
It's easy to model the known SIEVX scenario in this frame. Suppose a direction went out from Canberra around 8-12 October, for the AFP liaison officers to let their POLDA SIU contacts know - "Canberra wants a big operation, some serious deterrence". It would not need to be any more specific than that for the message to be understood.
POLDA Jakarta and West Java SIU units already have Quassey in place. They - not AFP - instruct him quickly to assemble a large passenger load, say 400-odd people, and bus them to Bandar Lampung . Meanwhile they organise and fit out the boat including fitting the makeshift extra deck. The boat moves westwards around the coast from Cilicap, thereby usefully generating a fog of incorrect intelligence reports about alleged Quassey boat departures. POLDA SIU units facilitate the road transit for the bus convoy , provide day accommodation in their hotel, and provide the armed men to load the 421 frightened passengers aboard by force . They activate the tracking device previously given them by AFP and they thereby track the boat's route and sinking point. They go out in patrol boats and do a visual check. They organise the fishing boat rescue of survivors the next day, to ensure the tale is told. .
At some stage after the event, they tell AFP what was done, perhaps not in any great detail. Better not to know the details.
I cannot prove this scenario yet, because AFP and DIMIA have refused to reveal any of their intelligence on SIEVX - there were at least six AFP reports after 14 October, and a whole series of earlier DIMIA reports on Quassey. The information that might have existed about SIEVX in the PM & C PST and in AFP and DIMIA lies under acres of black blot-out ink. Only a full-powers independent judicial enquiry could establish the truth of what lies beneath these black lines. Meanwhile the AFP blandly denies every question as misinformed, and simply ignores the questions.
Consider two more points.
In September 2001, the Indonesian Government cancelled the people smuggling protocol with AFP. Keelty has not clearly explained why. Maybe the Indonesian Government was becoming concerned about the way the program was corrupting members of their police force. Remarkably, Keelty said that the AFP despite the Indonesian Government's cancellation of the Protocol just went on cooperating informally, using their established working connections. So when SIEVX sank, there was no Protocol cover for AFP/POLDA cooperation in disruption. It is quite likely that both the POLDA SIUs, and their AFP liaison agents, were at that time operating illegally in Indonesia.
Secondly, read the just released DFAT reporting cable that was sent down from Jakarta on 23 October 2001 some 14 hours after the 44 survivors got back to Jakarta and read the intelligence reports that went to Howard and Ruddock on 23 October from the People Smuggling Taskforce in PM&C and from DIMIA.
Read the amazing detail in these Australian reports: how many passengers, their nationalities genders and ages, how many were previously in touch with IOM and UNHCR etc. How much extra fuel was on board? How many defective lifejackets? Even the exact dimensions of the boat, 19.5 by 4 metres, and its makeshift chipboard upper deck.
Australian complicity is betrayed by Australian officials' fatal compulsion to report in such detail. The information that came down to Canberra on 23 October could not possibly have come only from talking to 44 traumatised exhausted survivors. Such detailed information had to come from the organisers of the voyage. To me that is very persuasive evidence that POLDA SIU were working with Quassey, and that the Embassy was in touch with these men.
3. The record of concealment and misrepresentation in official testimony.
You have to read Committee Hansards or even better see videoed proceedings to get a full sense of this. Senior official witnesses with much to hide were very good at dragging things out, obfuscating key facts, memory lapses. The Defence Minister offered selective well-timed leaks outside Committee hearings of carefully packaged information to blunt the media impact of Committee proceedings. In the end, a cynical press got totally browned-off and bored. By July, hardly anyone was critically following the evidence in the Committee.
Now, only this week, important new evidence of government cover-up has emerged. On Wednesday 5 February, Senator Peter Cook, who chaired the CMI last year, made a powerful statement in the Senate, protesting at the very late release of the key DFAT cable that was sent from the Jakarta Embassy 16 months ago on 23 October 2001 and that Opposition Senators in CMI and Estimates Committees had been requesting for nearly seven months.
This cable, finally released on Tuesday 4 February, had originally gone to a very wide distribution in Canberra of 35 Ministers and senior national security officials, including many of those who later made public statements or sworn testimony to the CMI that SIEVX had sunk in Indonesian waters, or that it was not clear where it sank. Indeed the latter conclusion was written into the CMI Report on the basis of such sworn evidence from presumably authoritative witnesses.
Yet the 23 October 2001 cable that all these officials had received at the time, said clearly that SIEVX had sunk in Indonesia's nominal search and rescue zone, possibly as far south as 8 degrees south of the equator. This puts the sinking site in international waters, up to 80 miles south of Java, and well inside Australia's Operation Relex border protection military zone where Australia had major naval and air surveillance assets, and a consequential international law responsibility to assist any mariners in distress in these international waters.
Indonesia had no search and rescue asserts or surveillance capacity in the area. Australia had. All this is in published RAAF charts: On the evening of 19 October, a RAAF Orion surveillance plane flew not far south of the Indonesian patrol boat and recorded a radar contact at 1930. On the morning of 20 October an Orion flew over and detected the rescuing fishing boats. Yet the Orion crews apparently did not know there might be an overloaded SIEV boat somewhere below them at grave risk. No specific search and rescue tasking was ever given to them, despite all the prior AFP and DIMIA intelligence on SIEVX.
John Howard and a bevy of supporting officials spent months in 2002 trying to hide or obfuscate the facts of where SIEVX sank. Some are still doing it.
Senior officials do not hold back or misrepresent truth so systematically, unless they are trying to hide big and shameful truths. Senator Cook said on this in the Senate on Wednesday:
"Our ability to probe this issue to its logical conclusion was inhibited significantly and the findings we returned were findings on the evidence available to us and not on all of the evidence that could have been available had that embargo not been applied".
Drawing the threads of this long talk together, I can say that both elements of my original hypothesis - that there was Australian official misconduct both in the pre-embarkation phase and in the Operation Relex failure to locate and rescue phase - remain unanswered.
To conclude: Over the past six weeks the AFP and their Minister Senator Ellison have played a shameful and demeaning game of charades over the issue of bringing Abu Quassey to justice in Australia or Indonesia, for his admitted role in organising and embarking the dangerous voyage of SIEVX.
On New Year's Day, Quassey was released from Indonesian prison after serving 6 months for minor passport offences. The AFP and its Minister throughout January said they could not seek his extradition to Australia under their four existing people smuggling warrants for him (the most recent of these related to SIEVX, issued under Senate pressure), because Indonesia does not have people smuggling laws. They said they could not stop Indonesia deporting him as a free man to Egypt.
But they piously vowed to pursue him to the ends of the earth. They said they hoped they might be able to exercise an Interpol warrant to arrest him somewhere on his way to Egypt.
We lobbied the Indonesian and Egyptian Governments to review their positions, given that Quassey had admitted his involvement in organising an unsafe voyage that led to the deaths of 353 people. We urged that he be brought to trial, either in Indonesia or Australia, for this alleged great crime.
We also publicly urged AFP to facilitate and assist any such trial in Indonesia, if they could not secure Quassey's extradition to Australia.
As a result, Indonesia shelved its plan to deport Quassey to Egypt. On 28 January, Indonesia's Justice Minister Mahendra told the Jakarta Post that if Australia demanded Quassey's deportation to Australia to stand trial for this alleged crime; he would seriously consider acceding to this request.
All Ellison had to do was pick up the phone to Mahendra! But he never did. AFP's only response was to stall: they proposed at low official level to set up a joint police investigation in Indonesia of Quassey's alleged unspecified offences. More bureaucratic fog.
On 1 February, an angry Indonesian Justice Minister told the Sydney Morning Herald that it was clear to him that Australian authorities were not interested in bringing Quassey to justice in Australia for the sinking of SIEVX. He complained that no formal request had been put to him for Quassey's deportation despite his offer, and that the Australian Ambassador had not to that point raised the matter with him.
On 6 February, the Jakarta Post reported that Mahendra had decided that Quassey's deportation to Egypt would proceed after assurances had been obtained that Egypt would charge Quassey would appropriate offences regarding SIEVX.
There is still a deafening public silence from Senator Ellison and Commissioner Keelty. The hypocrisy and non-accountability of Australian law enforcement authorities stands shamefully revealed before Indonesia and the world.
I believe that Australian authorities are afraid to bring Quassey to Australia on SIEVX-sinking related charges, because of their fear that the evidentiary trail he might start in court could lead back to their own people smuggling disruption program in Indonesia. So they have stalled and prevaricated, hoping that Quassey would somehow disappear.
It is a national scandal that this gross official negligence of duty is not being challenged in our media. I hope it will be closely challenged next week in Senate Estimates. I hope our national media will report and comment on such proceedings.
It comes back to Senator Mason's question - can Australians handle the truth about SIEVX?
Are we going to allow the Colonel Jessops in our Government Ministries and national security bureaucracies to possibly protect and condone immoral and criminal actions - leading to the deaths of 353 innocent people - to defend our borders? Are we going to close our eyes and our institutions of national accountability to this grave possibility? Or are we instead going to fearlessly pursue truth, public decency and impartial justice for all under our laws?
These questions transcend political party. They go to our basic values and moral obligations as Australians.
For further information please contact:
Marilyn Shepherd 3/103 High Street Kensington 5068
(+61) 8332 8310