Boat tragedy linked to smuggling mastermind

Peter Alford and Paul Maley
December 19, 2011 12:00AM

INDONESIAN police are investigating whether an asylum boat that sank 75km off the coast of Java, sending about 200 asylum-seekers to their deaths, was dispatched by an associate of the recently arrested people-smuggling kingpin Sayed Abbas.

As rescuers yesterday battled heavy seas in their search for survivors of the doomed boat, The Australian understands Indonesian authorities have identified the principal suspect in Saturday's boat disaster as Haji Ismail, aka Sayed Azad or Sayed Jalal.

Indonesian authorities last night put the number of confirmed survivors at just 34, including a boy of about 10. The number of survivors suggest the death toll from the sinking - which occurred almost a year to the day after SIEV 221 was dashed against the rocks off Christmas Island, killing 50 - is likely to be about 200. There were reports of 215 to 250 people onboard.

In comments that augur badly for the search for survivors, police in Prigi said last night all the survivors had been found on Saturday. Two remained in hospital in Prigi, while the rest were taken by bus to Blitar.

While Saturday's tragedy produced an uneasy ceasefire between the major parties, with both wary of politicising the disaster, the head of the Catholic Church in Australia, George Pell, for the first time called for the restoration of offshore processing as a deterrent to boatpeople undertaking the dangerous journey to Australia.

Excoriating the "evil and irresponsible money-makers" who dispatched the boats with little regard for the lives of their customers, Cardinal Pell said the sinking was a tragedy.

"It's difficult to see any alternative to the government and opposition promptly agreeing on effective offshore deterrents," Cardinal Pell told The Australian.

"Australians do not want more tragedies like this."

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said yesterday was not the day for politicking but added a policy debate would "inevitably occur over the next few days" as a result of the sinking.

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said the tragedy "confirms our worst fears and the extremely dangerous nature of these journeys, especially at this time of year".

The tragedy began about 7am local time on Saturday when the overcrowded fishing vessel capsized 40 nautical miles, or 75km, off the coast of Java.

First on the scene were local fishermen who pulled men, women and children from the sea.

"The survivors had been hanging on to six life vests and floating in the sea for around five hours before fishermen found and rescued them," said a rescue official from the Trenggalek district said.

Mr Clare said about 250 passengers were aboard the boat, although sources close to smuggling operators in Jakarta said the figure could be as high as 380.

One of the rescued, 17-year-old Afghan student Armaghan Haidar, said he was sleeping when a storm began to rock the boat.

"I felt water touching my feet and woke up," Armaghan said. "As the boat was going down, people were panicking and shouting and trying to rush out. I managed to swim out and hang on to the side of the boat with about 100 others. (There were) about 20 to 30 others with life jackets, but another 100 people were trapped inside. There was only water around us, no island, nothing. The huge waves swept away 20 people."

Survivor Syed Mohammad Zia, 18, from Quetta, Pakistan, said there were about 215 people on the boat and "most of them died, about 185 of them".

"There were about 15 women and 20 children and now they are almost all dead," Syed said.

"We survived because we were swimming around when a fisherman took us on his boat."

He also claimed that the captain and six crew grabbed life vests for themselves and swam away as the vessel sank.

Another of the survivors, Iranian man Noroz Yousefi said: "I came from Jakarta, but I was planning for Australia to find freedom."

The Australian government was notified early yesterday and has since offered Indonesian authorities the use of a P3 Orion surveillance plane and an Armidale-class patrol boat to assist in the hunt for survivors.

Despite asylum-seeker policy being the subject of intense political skirmishing between the major parties this year, neither the government nor the opposition wanted to comment yesterday on what role, if any, Australia's softened border protection regime played in encouraging this latest boat. Mr Clare said the wreck was a "terrible tragedy".

"Our focus today is now on the search and rescue effort and our thoughts today are with the people who've died and with the families of those still lost at sea," he said.

Mr Morrison expressed the Coalition's sorrow at the disaster.

"The large number of people reported to have been on this vessel is especially concerning and confirms the trend we have seen this year of the people-smugglers putting more and more people onto every boat," Mr Morrison said.

Wayne Swan said his thoughts were with the victims and their families. "It's a tragic reminder of the dangers of attempting journeys like this," the Acting Prime Minister said. Mr Swan avoided discussion of whether Australia's onshore processing of asylum-seekers, attacked by critics as a magnet for people-smugglers, was responsible for the tragedy.

After the High Court in August scuttled the federal government's Malaysia solution - under which Australia would send 800 asylum-seekers to Kuala Lumpur in return for 4000 proven refugees - Julia Gillard sought opposition support for legislation to reinstate offshore processing.

Tony Abbott insisted he would support offshore processing only in accordance with the Coalition's policy of reopening an Australian-operated centre on the Pacific island of Nauru - a position rejected by the Prime Minister.

As news of the disaster broke, former Labor leader Mark Latham took aim at the Greens and the Labor Left, saying the "so-called compassionate" approach of onshore processing was causing deaths at sea. "You can't be compassionate and you can't have a good heart, you can't have a good soul, if you encourage people to get on boats that sink," Mr Latham told Sky's Australian Agenda.

"And people just need to understand that the real compassionate policy is to stop the flow of the boats."

Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young yesterday stood by her party's policies. Pressed on whether the Greens accepted responsibility for the tragedy, Senator Hanson-Young said: "Of course not. Tragedies happen, accidents happen."

Those rescued identified themselves as being from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Dubai and were last night being cared for in the town of Prigi in eastern Java.

Reports said there were about 40 children on the boat.

One Afghan survivor, 24-year-old Esmat Adine, gave rescuers an estimate for how many passengers were on the boat. "He did not know exactly how many passengers there were, but he said that four buses with around 60 or more adult passengers each had turned up to the port where they set off," he said through a translator.

Adine said the boat had been heading towards Australia's Christmas Island. It is not known what caused the accident although overcrowding was firming as the main contributor.

Yoso Mihardi, a spokesman for the Trenggalek district government, said the boat had a capacity of 100, "but it was overloaded with 250 people".

"That, combined with heavy rain and high waves, might have caused the boat to tip over and capsize," Mr Mihardi said.

"Our focus now is on rescue efforts and also to ensure the survivors are recovering well and given adequate food, water and medical assistance."

The tragedy occurred as Indonesia moves into the monsoon season, which generates high seas and often sees a lull in boat traffic.

The hunt for the organisers of Saturday's boat is likely to focus on Haji Ismail, a mid-level player in Indonesian smuggling circles, but one known to have worked with some of the major operators.

It is understood Ismail's name was given to Indonesian investigators by survivors of the disaster.

Ismail is a former associate of Sajjad Hussain Noor who was arrested on October 17 in Jakarta with two other men, one of whom was Ismail. More recently, he is believed to have reconnected with Sayed Abbas who was arrested on August 24, at the urging of the Australian government.

Sajjad and Abbas are the main targets of Australian law enforcement and Canberra has made clear it will seek to extradite the two to face people-smuggling charges. Indonesia has ruled Abbas must serve a sentence for immigration offences before extradition proceedings can begin.

His incarceration has done little to disrupt his network. Had it made it to Australia, the boat that sank would have been the largest boat to arrive since the smuggling trade resumed in late 2008.

Additional reporting: Matthew Franklin, Laren Wilson, Tess Livingstone, Michael Owen


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