Who'll rescue the truth of 353 lives lost at sea?
Tony Kevin
March 25 2002

Reviewing the public record of the sinking on October 19 last year of an unauthorised asylum-seeker vessel bound for Christmas Island, in which 353 people were drowned, throws up disquieting questions.

The first is why a Defence Department spokesman later said the closest Australian ship at the time was HMAS Arunta, which was 230 nautical miles (426 kilometres) south of where the boat sank, which was 80 kilometres south of Java. It had earlier been reported that Australian authorities had been monitoring the departure of the boat from Indonesia on October 18, and that Australian search-and-rescue authorities had put out a "boat overdue" notice on October 22.

Why, under new rules of RAN engagement requiring total maritime surveillance and total interception of unauthorised boats as close as 30 nautical miles from the Indonesian coast, was Arunta conspicuously so far away from the scene at the time of the sinking?

The reported circumstances of the departure from a small port in southern Sumatra are also disturbing. Indonesian security personnel reportedly crammed passengers at gunpoint into the boat. Passengers were lied to that it was a transit vessel from which they would transfer to a larger boat for the voyage to Christmas Island.

From the time of its departure, it has been reported, "passengers were forced to bail water flowing in through a long crack in the hull". When the vessel reached the open sea on Friday, October 19, one of its two engines failed. The stricken boat began to rock in the ocean swell, taking more and more water. Within a few minutes it capsized. The boat completely broke up soon after capsizing - which, taken together with the gross passenger overloading under armed duress, the reported damage to the hull, and the engine failure at sea, suggests sabotage. It was carrying only 70 life-vests.

The story became world news on Tuesday, October 23 - the day after the Australian authorities' "vessel overdue" notice was issued. An Egyptian people-smuggler, Abu Quessai, was held responsible for the voyage and arrested, but no manslaughter charges were laid.

It seems implausible that a commercial people-smuggler would have set out to sabotage his own operation. Might Quessai's venture have been taken over by more powerful armed elements in Indonesia, with the capacity to render it likely that this boat would sink early in the voyage? If so, with what possible motive?

It is hard to think such a ruthless action, if it took place, could have been officially sanctioned at Indonesian Government level. Before this event, the Indonesian Government had been manifestly unresponsive to Australia's expressed concerns about unauthorised asylum-seeker voyages from Indonesia to Australia.

This disaster proved a key circuit-breaker. Indonesia quickly agreed to co-host with Australia a conference on people-smuggling. Apart from one boat arrival on Ashmore Reef soon afterwards, there were no more people-smuggling voyages before the onset of the cyclone season (which this year came late, in December). The threatened overhang of 2500 people in Indonesia waiting to come to Australia never arrived.

This must have been a relief to Australian Government ministers and officials, who a few days earlier were worrying about more boats coming, after HMAS Adelaide's unsuccessful effort on October 6-8 to turn back SIEV 4 (the "children overboard" vessel). Manifestly, Adelaide's robust deterrence had failed because SIEV 4's passengers had correctly judged that the RAN would not leave them to drown. The courage of SIEV 4's passengers and Adelaide's adherence to its rescue-at-sea obligations had exposed the inherent weakness in the government's interception policy.

From recent disclosures by Kevin Ennis and Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty, we know that Australian police informants have deeply penetrated people-smuggling networks in Indonesia. It was the job of people such as Ennis (and Keelty confirmed in Senate Estimates on February 19 that the AFP employs other such informants) "to know everything that was happening in people smuggling: when the boats were going, who arranged them, who was on them" (The Sydney Morning Herald, March 4).

If it's true Australian authorities had monitored the departure of this vessel from Indonesia on October 18, how much, if anything, might they also have known about its departure being under armed duress, grossly overloaded and manifestly unseaworthy? Who, if anyone, might have received such information in Australia?

If Australian authorities knew this boat had left on October 18, why had the RAN apparently not been instructed to intercept it soon after its departure? Why was the nearest RAN ship 230 nautical miles to the south - far south of the boundary of Australia's declared maritime exclusion zone?

Such discrepancies in this haunting story of 353 innocent people drowned at sea remain to be explained. Such questions should be vigorously explored - if only to prove that there may be legitimate explanations.

We owe this to the dead and their grieving families.

Former Australian diplomat Tony Kevin is a visiting fellow in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at Australian National University.

This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2002/03/24/1016843087651.html

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