'Lenient' penalty for Siev X smuggler

By Sophie Morris
The Australian
December 29, 2003

A woman whose three daughters were among 353 people who drowned when a crowded refugee boat sank en route to Australia has described as a "disappointment" the seven-year sentence for the man who organised the voyage.

A Cairo court found Abu Quassey, also known as Mootaz Muhammad Hasan, guilty of manslaughter for organising the fatal voyage of Siev X, which sank on its way to Australia in October 2001.

Sondos Ismail, one of 40 survivors of the tragedy that claimed her three young daughters' lives, said yesterday the sentence - five years for homicide through negligence and two for aiding illegal immigration - was too lenient.

"Three hundred and fifty-three lives should be worth a lot more than that especially when it is known this guy was forcing them on to the boat," she said through an interpreter.

But Justice and Customs Minister Chris Ellison said that the conviction - and Australia's support for the prosecution - sent a "stern message" that people-smuggling would not go unpunished.

"The Australian Government would have preferred him to face an Australian court and had previously sought his extradition," Senator Ellison said. "In Australia for similar circumstances a 20-year imprisonment is the maximum penalty."

Quassey has lodged an appeal against the court's decision. Senator Ellison said Australian Federal Police provided statements and affidavits to support the prosecution during his trial and would continue to offer support if the appeal proceeded.

He said the Government could consider attempting again to extradite Quassey to testify at the trial of his alleged accomplice, Khaled Daoed, in Brisbane in April.

"That's something we could look at, to have him brought to Australia to testify, but that's for the Department of Public Prosecutions to decide," Senator Ellison said.

But Egypt's policy of refusing to extradite nationals could thwart any moves to bring Quassey to Australia for a second trial at the end of the seven-year sentence, he said.

The principle of double jeopardy, which prevents someone being tried twice for the same crime, would also prevent this.

Labor's homeland security spokesman, Robert McClelland, said Quassey should have been tried for murder in Australia and faced life imprisonment.

"I think the sentence is very light. I can't think of a much worse crime than this," Mr McClelland said.

Former diplomat Tony Kevin, who has campaigned for justice for Siev X victims, said because the trial was conducted in Egypt there had been no scrutiny of the circumstances surrounding the sinking.

"This was a travesty of proper judicial process, the mystery of how and why Siev X was sunk remains unsolved," Mr Kevin said.

Quassey was deported from Indonesia in May to his homeland of Egypt, which blocked an attempt by Australia to extradite him in April.

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