August 21, 2002
God's Decision - The Abu Quassey Story

In Indonesia last October, over 400 people were crammed onto a leaky boat bound for Christmas Island. 353 of them never made it. Men, women and children drowned when the boat, now known as SIEV-X, foundered. Abu Quassey, a people-smuggler, organised that voyage. Since last year Abu Quassey has been in police custody in Indonesia. Today he appeared in a Jakarta court to face - not a people- smuggling charge - but one of simply overstaying his visa. This week, Dateline secured exclusive access to the infamous people smuggler. David O'Shea reports.

REPORTER: David O'Shea

This is Jakarta's notorious Cipinang prison. It was once home to political prisoners, including Xanana Gusmao. But the man I've come to see is certainly no hero. Brought to me from his cell, he looks relaxed and comfortable amongst new friends. Some know him as Nilgun. Others call him John. And he has Turkish and Egyptian passports. He admits he's Egyptian, but says his name this time is Mootaz Atya Mohammed. In Australia, he's known as Abu Quassey, the notorious people smuggler, who sent 353 people to their deaths. He agrees to an interview and begins by telling me the enormous loss of life was God's decision.

ABU QUASSEY (Translation): I tried to protect people's lives. But when the incident happened, it was God's will whether they'd be safe or not. It's better that I stop all this. And personally, I'm not going to do that any more. I'll look for another business. I'll open a shop, whatever... be a taxi driver, whatever. That's how I'm thinking now. I have a wife and child. I want to look after them. I want to make clean money so they can eat. I was actually the middleman and the passengers trusted me. They instructed me, "Please check the boat." But I didn't.

REPORTER: You didn't check the boat?

ABU QUASSEY (Translation): No, I didn't. I didn't know what the boat was like. That's what I regret. There were other people. I can't tell you their names, but there were people from here who knew boats. It would have been impossible for me do that. Impossible. But there were people from here... How shall I put it? I didn't... I trusted them.

Abu Quassey's attempt to shift responsibility for the SIEV-X tragedy doesn't wash with Amal Hassan Basri, one of only 43 survivors, who is currently taking English lessons in Melbourne. She says he was present at the departure and helped direct the loading of more than 400 people onto that boat.

AMAL HASSAN BASRI Translation): He instructed the men to work together to pull up the anchor. And then the men managed to pull up the anchor. The boat was about to move. He shouted at us, asking for more cooperation,asking us to pray to God to arrive in two days time. He was present. Not far from us.

Another survivor, Faris Fadel Hadem, remembers the threats as he was forced onto the boat at gunpoint.

FARIS FADEL HADEM (Translation): They SAID "Get on board or you'll get a bullet.

The SIEV-X passengers were taken to this spot on the southern tip of Sumatra to begin their fateful journey. There was no shortage of willing customers and huge profits to be made. Over 400 people each paid an average of $1,000 for a place on the doomed vessel. Abu Quassey had organised two boats to leave from here, but one apparently broke down before it arrived at the pick-up location.

REPORTER: And the second boat?

ABU QUASSEY (Translation): I don't know. That's why I say I'm sorry about it. Because the passengers trusted me. But I didn't go and see for myself. I couldn't tell them I'd checked the boat. I just trusted the ones organising things.

REPORTER: Were they Indonesian?

ABU QUASSEY (Translation): Yes.

REPORTER: From the security forces?

ABU QUASSEY (Translation): I can't say. I don't know. I don't know.

Abu Quassey's claim that he doesn't know who else was involved in organising the journey is hard to believe. And what's more, he claims that the gross overcrowding on the vessel was the fault of the passengers themselves, with many more arriving for the journey than he had expected.

ABU QUASSEY (Translation): Actually, the passengers cheated themselves. They cheated themselves. Say I asked how many were going. They'd say "two". But there were five. Five. Maybe they planned to hide once they got on the bus.

Amal Hassan Basri says he's trying to duck responsibility for his actions.

AMAL HASSAN BASRI (Translation): He was the teacher and we were his students, obeying him. Whatever he told us to do, we obeyed him. We all had to follow his orders. Our lives depended on him. So how could we disobey? He could have said anything if he had any sense of responsibility and cared about people's lives. Anything to stop us. "The boat is faulty." "There is a hole in this boat." Then people wouldn't have risked their lives.

Abu Quassey - alias Nilgun, alias Mootaz Atya Mohammed - lived in this town here in Bandung, West Java, but his maid knows him as Mr John.

REPORTER: What did he do every day?

MAID (Translation): Nothing. He never went to the office. He was always on his mobile. It rang every second. But he never went to the office.

As SIEV-X sank and over 400 people were thrown into the sea, Abu Quassey says he learned of the tragedy from television and was utterly shocked.

ABU QUASSEY (Translation): It really stressed me out. What can I say? I couldn't sit still. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat. I was really stressed.

Shortly after SIEV-X sank, the people smuggler was arrested, along with two other men. He was detained here at police headquarters in Jakarta. But from Australia's perspective, there was a big problem. Indonesia has no laws against people smuggling. He was charged with a simple immigration matter - overstaying his visa. He says Australia had a hand in his long detention.

ABU QUASSEY (Translation): I was detained for nine months without trial. Without the normal process. That has to be because of Australia.

But a spokesman at the Department of Justice says the police report the prosecutors received contained nothing about his people-smuggling activities.

REPORTER: Can you get him on issues of sending a boat to Australia?


REPORTER: What's the maximum jail sentence?

HARYONO (Translation) A maximum 6-year jail sentence or a fine of 30 million rupiah.

That's around A$6,000, or to put it another way, the price of the journey for six people on that doomed boat. Given the amount of money he made - not to mention the enormous loss of life - it's a mere slap on the wrist. But Quassey claims he won't be able to afford any fine because the money is now gone - to a man who said he had good government contacts, who promised to get him off the hook.

ABU QUASSEY (Translation): To someone who knew a government minister. I said OK, I believe you. So I handed over 50 million, then 70, then 100 million.

REPORTER: But there was no-one who could arrange it?

ABU QUASSEY (Translation): Normally in this country money fixes everything. Not everything can be solved with money. With my case, I tried everything but without any success. Even though, while I was at police headquarters, many cases involving corruption and money were sorted out.

But Abu Quassey's bid for freedom was never going to be easy. The Australian Government has made it abundantly clear to Indonesia, both privately and publicly, that they want the smugglers arrested and the industry shut down. And according to documents released by Defence Minister Robert Hill in July, an intelligence unit from Australia's Immigration Department was filing constant reports on Quassey's movements for over three months until his arrest. Abu Quassey says he knew he was being monitored.

ABU QUASSEY (Translation): At the time I was in Bandung.

REPORTER: Was there a foreigner watching you?

ABU QUASSEY (Translation): I can't be sure. But I was at a cafe and a foreigner was watching me closely. I'd been there a couple of times and there was one person constantly watching and I became suspicious.

REPORTER: When was it?

ABU QUASSEY (Translation): At the same time.

REPORTER: Before your arrest?

ABU QUASSEY (Translation): Before my arrest. Then I didn't go there any more because I didn't feel I had done anything wrong.

Canberra would like to extradite Abu Quassey from Indonesia, but that's not legally possible at present. And the Indonesians don't seem too keen to help. They're unhappy Australia hasn't agreed to extradite someone they want - a Mr Hendra.

PRASETYO, POLICE SPOKESPERSON (Translation): We have a treaty with Australia. We have asked for people to be extradited, but they haven't been handed over. Like the case of Hendra, a big corrupter who is still in Australia. We've asked for his return but he has yet to be delivered. We haven't pushed that issue with Australia even though we've met all the conditions.

Extradition problems aside, it seems highly unlikely that Abu Quassey will simply be forgotten. At a recent Senate inquiry hearing in Canberra, the Australian Federal Police gave brief details of their attempts to snare the people-smuggler...

MICK KEELTY, AUSTRALIAN FEDERAL POLICE COMMISSIONER (At Senate Inquiry Hearing): The AFP has obtained three first-instance warrants for the arrest of the alleged organiser of SIEV-X for offences against the Migration Act 1958.

..and then declined to answer questions on the SIEV-X matter, claiming it would prejudice the prosecution.

MICK KEELTY: I can't give evidence about SIEV-X because it falls within the area of objection.

It seems there is little that Australia can do to get hold of Abu Quassey while he is in Indonesia. But sources in Jakarta suggest there that may be a possibility of catching him, if he leaves. But the cocky people smuggler says he's already one step ahead.

ABU QUASSEY (Translation): I was afraid of that, so I asked about it, and I was told that once I have been tried, no-one can chase me anymore.

The people smuggler arrived at South Jakarta court today to face his visa-related charges, but he had no last-minute comments. This afternoon, the Australian Federal Police told 'Dateline' they would work with Indonesian authorities to ensure Abu Quassey was brought to justice. The fact that he may walk free at the end of this trial is no comfort at all to the SIEV-X' survivors.

AMAL HASSAN BASRI (Transaltion): It is a very painful thing. The wasted lives of all those children and women and families and young men who drowned because of the carelessness of one person who lacks any sense of responsibility. And after all that, that he not be punished! It's pitiful.

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