People smuggling overlord jailed

Jan 29, 2004

In Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand they are seen as untouchable - the "snakeheads" who for a price can open up the passage to a better life.

With the jailing for 12 years of one of south-east Asia's people smuggling overlords in a Perth court, the Australian Federal Police and their international partners hope that aura of invincibility has been punctured.

For his part in bringing almost 1,700 illegal immigrants to Australia, Palestinian national Keis Abd Rahim Asfoor will not be released until at least 2009.

As far as the government was concerned he was their number one target.

And the agents scouring the Pacific Rim, trying to plug the leak of illegal immigrants into Australia, believe the sentence will send a message to other ringleaders - get caught and you will pay.

Asfoor's seven-week trial, which took more than two years to reach a jury, heard from more than 50 asylum seekers who said they were brought to Australia in one of Asfoor's boats.

Up to 353 people at a time would set out from Indonesia, usually Lombok, and land at Ashmore Reef, 610km north of Broome, on the northern tip of the WA coastline.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) calculate the operations would have netted him as much as $A6.3 million - other estimates are as high as $A25 million. The money was secreted in accounts outside Indonesia, and may never be located.

The Australian authorities knew of the activities of Asfoor and his alleged partner-in-crime Majid Mahmood, but they could not act because of the absence of extradition arrangements with Indonesia.

But Asfoor's seasoned and practised network started to fall apart with the involvement of an Australian surf shop owner, Michael Williamson, who operated a charter boat in Indonesia.

After befriending Williamson, Asfoor told him there were thousands of people ready and waiting to be smuggled into Australia, and the subsequent profits could be huge.

While conferring with federal agents in Jakarta, Williamson met the man he knew only as "Keis" over several months.

Believing he was talking to a trusted partner, Asfoor eventually revealed he wanted to get out of the people smuggling business and move to Australia with a false Turkish passport under the name Imam Dogan.

After all the information and documents were fed to the federal police, Asfoor was allocated a visa to enter the country. Meanwhile, authorities lay in wait and on touchdown in Perth, he was arrested.

Federal Agent Glen McEwen, one of the agents who set up the sting, said his capture and confinement will send shockwaves throughout people-smuggling networks.

"In terms of Australia, he and his partner were the number one (people-smugglers)," Agent McEwen said.

"It will put a big dent in the passengers' confidence in allowing them to exploit them. Now they are shown to be mortal, whereas before they were seen as untouchable."

As well as sending a message to those still operating, some of Asfoor's compatriots awaiting trial in Australian prisons will also undoubtedly take note of Judge Shauna Deane's sentence and comments.

Judge Deane said: "There are thousands of people in this desperate situation, and there are almost certainly others that are also disposed to organise their illegal entry.

"I must send a strong message to these would be people-smugglers."

Also in Perth, Pakistani Hasan Ayoub faces 12 charges of smuggling people from Indonesia to Australia from between December 2000 and March 2001 while pioneering a new route using the southern Cambodian port of Sihanoukville.

In Darwin, 32-year-old Ali Hassan Abdolimir Al Jenabi faces 22 charges relating to the smuggling of 359 asylum seekers to Australia in 2000 and 2001 before his arrest and extradition from Bangkok in late 2002.

And most importantly for the government, Kuwaiti-born Khaleed Shnayf Daoed, who was extradited from Sweden to Brisbane last November, will face trial over his part in the ill-fated voyage of [t]he SIEV-X.

The dilapidated Indonesian fishing boat SIEV-X - standing for 'Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X' - sank en route to Christmas Island in October 2001 with the loss of more than 350 lives, most of them women and children.

Daoed was initially arrested by Indonesian police in January 2002, but released soon after and granted refugee status by the UN, before settling in Sweden.

Last November, the Swedish government granted Australia's request to bring him to Australia to face trial - the first criminal hearing that will be held in Australia into the SIEV-X tragedy.

A successful prosecution of Daoed became even more important after the authorities were left embarrassed by their failure to secure the extradition of the ringleader of the SIEV-X voyage, Abu Quassey.

He was sentenced in Egypt to seven years for manslaughter, despite Justice Minister Chris Ellison labelling him a major fugitive on Australia's most-wanted list.



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