Darkness is a smuggler's only friend

Don Greenlees
The Australian
26 October 2001

ABU Quessai, the people-smuggler who sent 353 asylum seekers to their deaths, is a creature of the night.

Even before most of his human cargo drowned a week ago, he had so many enemies that he rarely went out during the day.

'He always goes out at night,' says Iraqi refugee Assad Abrahim, who lost relatives on Quessai's doomed vessel. 'He shows people he is a good man but in my heart I never liked him.'

As Abrahim spoke yesterday, Australia's chief Muslim cleric, Sheik Tak Aldin Elhilali, led friends and families of the victims in a Sydney prayer vigil. 'It is unfortunate to see that innocent lives are being used to win a few votes,' said Sheik Elhilali, blaming the Howard Government's hardline refugee policy for the tragedy.

But the man most directly responsible is Quessai, whose favourite venues for arranging boatloads of illegal migrants were small hotels in central Jakarta and the town of Bogor, in the mountains south of Jakarta.

Abrahim, who met him more than once at these hotels, remembers the smiling and friendly Quessai was always careful about his security: 'I think some people wanted to get money back from him.'

With the police and survivors of last week's sinking in hot pursuit, the smuggler will have suddenly become even more elusive. But Quessai -- who claims to be an Egyptian who has lived for the past seven to nine years in Indonesia -- has never had a high profile in the people-smuggling world.

There are believed to be no police photos of him. The only description comes from refugees, who say he is aged between 30 and 32, of medium height, average build and with a moustache. He once wore a short ponytail but cut it off.

It was only this year that Quessai branched out on his own in the smuggling business. Previously, he was a junior associate of another well-known smuggler, Ahmed Aloung, known as 'Ahmed the Indonesian'.

The boat that went down on Friday was going to put Quessai into the big time. It was the greatest financial windfall of his short career.

Assuming an average payout of $US1500 ($3000) per passenger, the 421 mainly Iraqi people he jammed aboard the dilapidated 19-metre fishing vessel could have earned him $US630,000. He is known to have paid the captain of the vessel about $US2500 and the cost of the vessel itself would scarcely have been more.

Before organising this ship, Quessai had sent two earlier vessels to Australia: one carrying 22 people in March, and another carrying 150 people in August. Both boats made it to Christmas Island.

The evidence suggests Quessai is not a terribly effective smuggler. It is believed by authorities that he tried to organise two boats for his latest cargo but could find only one. The result was that he crowded the entire consignment of refugees into a vessel capable of carrying fewer than 100 people.

If the deaths of nearly all those on board ensures Quessai goes down as one of the most reviled men in a disreputable fraternity, he cannot carry all the blame.

At least three others would need to join him if he ever faces manslaughter charges.

Quessai's burgeoning business drew on the assistance of two Iraqi men who have been granted refugee status by the UN High Commission for Refugees in Jakarta.

Other refugees identify them as Kalid and Maythen, both said to be in their early 30s.The syndicate is also aided by an Indonesian known to refugees as Majan.

There is a more troubling connection. Analysts of the people- smuggling business say the smugglers have received protection from Indonesian marines in South Sumatra, where Quessai launched his boats.

Survivors of last week's shipwreck claim police forced some people who wanted to get off the boat to remain on board at gunpoint. But it is believed the armed men, about eight of them, assisting Quessai with the boarding of the vessel were more likely to have been Indonesian marines.

Western diplomats say they are treating the claims that some people were prevented from getting off the fishing boat with scepticism.

'There is a lot of headline grabbing going on -- it's a bit outside of what happened,' one diplomat said.

Where Quessai is now is anyone's guess. Authorities have reports of him turning up in Semarang in Central Java and Medan in North Sumatra.

But he may not have gone too far. Assad Abrahim says Quessai once claimed to be married to an Indonesian woman and have two children. They were living in the city of Bandung, 180km south of Jakarta.

At one stage he also had an Iraqi girlfriend, according to Abrahim. He had a convenient solution when he wanted to end the affair -- the woman was put on a boat to Australia.

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