Recent testimony indicates that the boat carrying the 65 asylum-seekers from Indonesia, heading for New Zealand, was forcibly hijacked by the Australian Navy in international waters, before being escorted to Australian waters. After illegally detaining the asylum-seekers and their crew for some days, the Navy – cruelly mimicking the modus operandi of the Mediterranean ‘people smugglers’ – then forced the asylum-seekers into two boats that barely had enough fuel to reach Indonesia (and nowhere else). Meanwhile, George Brandis, the Australian Attorney-General, refused to adhere to a Senate demand that he provide documents relating to the funding of ‘people smugglers’ by Australian authorities – consequently, he and his Government may be in contempt, if not of the Senate then certainly of the Australian people.
UPDATE: Laws have clearly been broken. According to barrister Julian Burnside, the Australian Government has contravened (Australian) Criminal Code, section 73(1) – though prosecution has to be organised by the AFP (Australian Federal Police). The Government may also have contravened the (Australian) Maritime Act 1958 (Sect 233D) and according to a law expert the 2000 Protocol Against Smuggling of Migrants By Lands, Sea and Air (prosecution re latter would have to be organised by Indonesia). Other avenues could be explored via the ICC (International Criminal Court). Latest… The Abbott government’s controversial citizenship bill could be blocked in the Senate if the government continues to refuse to divulge whether Australian authorities paid criminal gangs on the high seas to turn an asylum seeker boat around to Indonesia.
A. The timeline of ‘the sixty-five’
Recent testimony, when collated with the narrative given in a letter signed by the 65 asylum-seekers, has provided a more detailed timeline of the journey taken by the 65 – from the time the ‘people smugglers’ crew were recruited, to the near-fatal climax of the asylum-seekers reaching Indonesian land.
What has now become apparent is that the interception of the asylum-seekers boat may have been a criminal act (in the legal sense); similarly the detention of the asylum-seekers on board the Navy ship. Also, by seeing off the asylum-seekers in two other un-seaworthy boats with insufficient fuel, the Australian Navy has shown it is no different from the ‘people smugglers’ in the Mediterranean, who deliberately abandon their human ‘cargo’ in fuel-less boats and to risk of death.
The timeline is derived from a number of sources – here, here, here, here and here. Also: an audio interview conducted by a New Zealand journalist with Nazmul Hassan, a Bangladeshi refugee and one of the 65 forced by the Australian navy to go on to Indonesia, and a video testimony.
What is clear from the timeline is that the objective of the Australian authorities was to delay matters enough until the asylum-seekers boat (which had enough fuel to get to New Zealand – their intended destination) could be replaced with one or more boats that would only have enough fuel to get to within sight of the Indonesian coastline.
- Early April: five crew from Manado in North Sulawesi and one from Jakarta were recruited by ‘A J’, a ‘people smuggler’. Mr Yohanis Humiang was offered 150 million rupiah ($AUD15,000) to captain a boat to take 65 asylum seekers from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar to New Zealand. Among the asylum-seekers there were three children and four women, one of whom was pregnant.
- April 16th: the captain and crew gathered at Cempaka Hotel, where they stayed for two nights before being bussed to Tegal, on the north coast of Java.
- Once a boat was found, the crew travelled by sea to Cidaun beach on the south coast of West Java.
- May 5th: around 4:00 am the boat – the ‘Andika’ – carrying the 65 asylum-seekers, departed towards New Zealand through the Java Sea. A police document said the boat passed Bali and continued further east, past West Timor.
- May 19th: while just off the Timor-Leste coast the boat was intercepted by HMAS Wollongong (Australian Navy) and an Australian Customs vessel. The asylum-seekers and their crew were warned not to enter Australian waters. Mr Yohanis and his crew were interrogated by the Australians. Mr Yohanis told the Australians that they had no right to stop the boat as it was in international waters. Mr Yohanis was told by a man calling himself ‘Agus’ that he and his crew could be flown back to Indonesia if they wished.
- May 21st: the ‘Andika’ was intercepted a second time by the Australian Navy and Customs and escorted to Greenhill Island (Northern Territory, Australia) – a journey of four days – all the time sandwiched between the HMAS Wollongong and the Customs vessel.
- May 25th: the ‘Andika’ was escorted to Ashmore Reef (also Australian territory) – a two day journey.
- May 27th: Mr Yohanis and five crew members were paid between $US6000 and $US5000 (totally £US30000) each by ‘Agus’ (believed to be acting on behalf of ASIS) to take the asylum-seekers back to Indonesia. Some of the asylum-seekers were held in the Australian naval vessel’s hold; they claim that whilst there none was allowed a change of clothes or any food.
- Meanwhile the Australian Navy replaced the asylum-seekers boat with two smaller wooden boats – the ‘Jasmine’ and the ‘Kanak’. According to Mr Yohanis, both boats were un-seaworthy (had no navigational aids, so would not warn of reefs) and had insufficient fuel – enough only for five hours – possibly just enough to get back to Indonesia.
- May 31st: The asylum seekers headed back to Indonesia, with the Australian navy vessel following. Once the asylum-seekers boats had reached Indonesian waters the Australian naval vessel turned round. Not long after that the fuel on one of the two asylum-seekers’ boats – the ‘Jasmine’ – ran out and the crew and passengers had to change over to the other boat, which became dangerously crammed.
- The ‘Jasmine’ eventually made it to some rocks, just off Landu island (West Rote), where it was smashed up. The asylum-seekers had littkle choice but to try to swim for land.
- One and a half hours later all asylum-seekers made it to the shore, where they were helped by local (Indonesian) villagers.
- [The villagers immediately gave the asylum-seekers clothes and cooked food for them]
(Note: dates in timeline as accurate as possible and based on cross-referencing sources.)
B. In contempt?
On Tuesday the Australian Green Party tabled and won a motion in the Senate demanding that the Government produce within 24 hours all documents relating to the funding of ‘people smugglers’. This demand, however, was not met – see below an extract of the verbal exchange between the Greens leader and the Attorney-General (George Brandis)…
Senator DI NATALE (Victoria—Leader of the Australian Greens) (14:24): Mr President, I rise on a further supplementary question: I would like to ask the minister to confirm whether the Assistant Minister for Immigration and Border Protection will do as the Senate requested yesterday, and that is to table all the documents relating to this tawdry affair? And I ask whether they will be shared with the Senate and the Australian people, as confirmation of his statement yesterday that everything that was done was within the law?
Senator BRANDIS (Queensland—Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate, Vice-President of the Executive Council, Minister for Arts and Attorney-General) (14:24): Well, it is certainly not the practice of any political party in this country, or at least any governing party, on this side of the chamber or the other, to bring into the Senate and to table documents relating to the national security of Australia…
And so it went on – here is a pdf of the full exchange.
Senator Di Natale followed up with this statement:
Senator DI NATALE (Victoria—Leader of the Australian Greens) (15:31): I move:
That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Attorney-General (Senator Brandis) to a question without notice asked by Senator Di Natale today relating to recent media reports concerning people smugglers.
Just when you thought the government could not sink any lower—just when you thought that this debate could not sink to new depths—what we have are allegations through the Indonesian government, relayed by people who were witnesses to the actions of the Australian government, effectively showing that we are engaged in the people-trafficking business. We have crossed a line here. In order to avoid a bad headline, we have Australian government officials involved in people-trafficking. When is this going to stop? At what point will we decide, ‘Enough is enough—we cannot continue going down the road that we are on’? We have gag orders to prevent people from speaking out around the conditions in detention. We have doctors, nurses and teachers being prevented from communicating with the Australian community about what is going on in detention centres. This is being done in the name of the Australian community. We have members of parliament being spied on. Young kids in detention are being locked up indefinitely, causing self-harm. Women about to give birth are being denied decent antenatal care. That is where this debate is going, and now we have gone even further. We have put people’s lives at risk on the high seas and we have given people smugglers wads of cash in order to do it. We have to stop.
Senator Brandis refused to deny the fact that we are now engaged in bribery. We are paying people large sums of money to avoid a bad headline. That is not the basis of good public policy—it is not. We are being shown up by our regional neighbours. We have the Indonesian foreign minister showing more transparency and accountability than our own government. It is not good enough. Where is this money coming from? From what government department and what program? Is this foreign aid money? Will we find out later that this is contributing to the effort to combat poverty internationally?
Yesterday an order for the production of documents was moved in this place. If the government wants to stand by its claim that it did not break the law, either here in Australia or internationally, it has the opportunity to demonstrate that by providing all of the documents around this activity that has occurred in relation to paying people traffickers. What did we learn in question time today? The government will not produce those documents—it is a matter of national security. Yes, those boats coming from Indonesia are just waiting to take over the Australian mainland. Those people fleeing from oppressive regimes—people from right across the planet leaving regimes that inflict torture and great harm on individuals, including young children—just cannot wait to put our national security at risk. What nonsense.
This debate must end here. We need some leadership—we absolutely, desperately need some leadership. We need a circuit breaker. We need those good people on all sides of the chamber, who understand that what is being done demeans us as a people, to speak up. Our leaders are letting us down. It is no longer good enough to engage in this reckless, lawless activity that is in breach of our own domestic law and in breach of international law. I have some advice for my colleagues in the Australian Labor Party, who are now contemplating the notion of supporting the turn-back policy. At some point, you have to come to the realisation that you cannot continue following the government down this path—down these depths—because they know no boundaries when it comes to the rule of law, when it comes to respecting international norms and when it comes to showing decency, compassion and humanity. They are simply not capable of it, and you must take a stand. You must join with us in taking a stand to end what has been a demeaning, destructive and, in many ways, completely futile debate. What we need here is some global leadership. We need the Australian government to play its part as a responsible global citizen and know that, regardless of what we do, the problem will continue and we need to ensure that we play a constructive role in the solution.