A Certain Maritime Incident - the aftermath

Author: Senator John Faulkner is Shadow Special Minister of State and Home Affairs

Introduction

In February 2002 the Labor Party, with the agreement of the minor parties in the Senate, established a Senate Select Committee to examine fully the children overboard incident. We wanted this inquiry, called the Certain Maritime Incident Committee or CMI Committee, to uncover the truth about the children overboard lie ­ the how, when and why of the Government's deceit.

While the CMI Committee enabled us to investigate the children overboard lie, it also allowed us to scrutinise many aspects of the Howard Government's asylum seeker policy.

Today, because of the work of the CMI Committee ­ especially the work of my colleagues Jacinta Collins and Peter Cook, we know a great deal more about the Government's response to asylum seekers than otherwise would be the case. David Marr who co-authored Dark Victory believes that if it were not for the CMI Committee most of this information would not have been revealed to public scrutiny until 30 years after the event. The exhaustive cross-examination of witnesses would not have taken place.

The response to boat people or asylum seekers was the main focus of the Howard Government in the lead up to the last federal election. The Government¹s strategy was based on politicising the asylum seeker issue for electoral advantage. It wasn¹t just the Tampa episode, or the bald faced lies about children being thrown overboard, it was a systematic campaign to engender public fear about asylum seekers and the need to protect our borders against them at all costs.

But, what has interested me most of all about the Howard Government's asylum seeker policy ­ is the largely unknown policy to deter and disrupt people smugglers and asylum seekers in Indonesia - the so called disruption programme.

Tonight I want to focus on the disruption programme ­ the most clandestine part of the Howard Government¹s people smuggling policy. Very substantial resources in the Australian Embassy in Jakarta have been used to support this policy and yet, we still know little about the programme. What we do know raises serious questions that warrant serious answers.

CMI Committee -­ expansion of the terms of reference

It may surprise you to know that it was the Liberal Senators on the CMI Committee who wanted to expand the Committee's terms of reference so that all aspects of the Government's anti-people smuggling policy could be examined. Originally the CMI Committee was only going to look at the children overboard episode.

Labor agreed to their proposal. The Liberals thought this expansion would be politically beneficial. They thought they could expose the behaviour of desperate asylum seekers and "dehumanise" them. How wrong they were. I believe this was a real political own goal because it gave us a capacity to raise questions regarding the Tampa, SIEVX and the Government¹s disruption policy.

SIEVX

While the Government has claimed that Operation Relex (which aims to deter asylum seeker vessels approaching Australia through constant sea and air surveillance between Australia and Indonesia) had a significant impact on deterring asylum seekers from taking risky voyages to Australia by boat ­ I¹m sure the SIEVX disaster also had a great impact.

The people smuggling vessel, now referred to as SIEVX, was organised by people smuggler Abu Quassey. On the 19th October 2001, a day after SIEVX set sail for Australia, the vessel suddenly sank. Three hundred and fifty three people, including 142 women and 146 children, drowned . After a night in the water, two fishing boats rescued just 44 survivors from SIEVX.

The news that SIEVX had sunk killing around 350 passengers received worldwide coverage. This coverage sent a clear message of the high risks of such a voyage.

Much has been written about the SIEVX disaster since that time. The CMI Committee investigated why the Australian Defence Force, who were surveilling the area where SIEVX sank, by air and by sea, did not sight the vessel.

Even the question of where SIEVX sank has been extraordinarily difficult to nail down. Let¹s examine the evidentiary record.

Two pieces of evidence support claims SIEVX sank in Indonesian waters:

1. The Defence Department Operation Gaberdine/Op Relex report dated 23 October 2001 stated SIEVX "is suspected to have sunk inside ID TS [Indonesian Territorial Seas]"; and

2. Defence Head of Staff Brigadier Millen at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta phoned through to Canberra on the 23rd October that SIEVX "sunk in Indonesian territorial seas".

Four pieces of evidence support claims SIEVX sank in International waters:

1. The People Smuggling taskforce notes from the 23 October 2001 state "Vessel likely to have been in international waters south of Java";

2. A DFAT Cable dated 23 October 2001 indicates "The exact position of the vessel at the time of sinking is unknown but it is judged as no further south than 8 degrees south latitude on a direct line from Sunda Strait to Christmas Is";

3. A DIMA Intelligence Note dated 23 October 2001 states "At about 1400 hours on Friday [19 October], when approximately 60 Nautical Miles south of the Sunda Strait, the boat began taking water and finally capsized and sank at about 1500 hours"; and

4. A report from the Harbourmaster¹s office at Sundu Kelapa in North Jakarta dated 24 October 2001 indicates that the fishing boats rescued the survivors from SIEVX in international waters.

Given this evidence how could John Howard have claimed during the election campaign that SIEVX "sankŠin Indonesian waters, not in Australian waters. It sunk in Indonesian waters and apparently that is our fault" .

As far as the Australian Defence Force is concerned I am sure it would be in their interest to end the public debate over Operation Relex¹s surveillance at the time of SIEVX's sinking. And the best way to do that is to have as much information on the public record as possible about the ADF's operations.

I note the ADF worked assiduously to cooperate with the CMI Committee ­ even when the Government and Defence Minister Robert Hill were deliberately obstructive.

That said, and I want to make this clear, we have seen no evidence to support claims that the Australian Defence Force ignored the plight of those onboard SIEVX. And without any evidence I will draw no such conclusions.

But Labor Senators will not shirk from seeking answers to questions on these issues. We have not done so in the past and we will certainly not do so if further questions arise.

Regardless, I do believe the circumstances surrounding the departure from Indonesia of SIEVX warrant further and closer investigation.

SIEVX survivors themselves have provided information about their voyage that raises serious concern.

Before SIEVX departed it was very low in the water and horribly overcrowded, carrying four times the number of passengers a vessel of its size should carry . About 30 Indonesian police were present. They beat some of the passengers and forced asylum seekers to board at gunpoint. The police appeared to be actively involved in the people smuggling operation.

SIEVX survivor Issam Ismail¹s account is disturbing:

"The Indonesian Police were there. They were carrying automatic guns. They were so comfortable. They were the ones who gave the signals with their torches. Turning on the torch was a signal to send out people. Turning off the torch meant stop. That was how it was done. We saw them with our own eyes. They had weapons we had never seen before. The latest brands".

It only took minutes for SIEVX to sink. Bahram Khan, from Jalalabad in Afghanistan, said "The hull sprang a hole. The mechanic could not fix it and the boat sank".

On the 25 October 2001, Prime Minister Howard was reported to be seeking more information about whether the reports that Indonesian security personnel forced asylum seekers onto SIEVX at gunpoint were true . Since then the Prime Minister has not made public what information, if any, he received about the situation surrounding the departure of SIEVX.

SIEVX was not the only people smuggling vessel to get a send off from Indonesian authorities.

As journalist Lindsay Murdoch in the Sydney Morning Herald reported in 2001, "boats [from Indonesia] carrying hundreds of people have sunk, drowning all aboardŠSome survivors say Indonesian authorities have, at times, helped push boats out to sea knowing they are not seaworthy".

These boats include the KM Palapa which sank heading for the Australian coast. Those on board the KM Palapa were rescued by the Tampa, the Norwegian cargo ship. Passengers on the KM Palapa last year told a court case in Perth that the Indonesian National Police were involved in the people smuggling operation that organised the departure of their vessel from Indonesia.

Disruption

But there is an untold story of the Howard Government's anti-people smuggling policy ­ the disruption programme ­ the policy to deter and disrupt people smugglers and asylum seekers from reaching Australia by boat from Indonesia.

Last year I was able to explore the Government¹s disruption policy through the CMI Committee and at Senate Estimate hearings.

The people smuggling disruption programme can take a number of forms. For example, through Australian officials informing people in Indonesia of the dangers and risks associated with people smuggling, and the penalties they might face.

I have no problem with this at all ­ but there was a more active element.

The Australian Federal Police explained last year, in broad terms, that the primary objective of disruption is to:

"... prevent the departure of the vessel in the first instance, to deter or dissuade passengers from actually boarding a vessel".

The Department of Immigration goes further, indicating that disruption involves the "interception at the actual point of attempting to continue their journey, either by sea or air.

Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty informed the CMI Committee that once the Indonesians are tasked to disrupt then the AFP must leave it in their hands "as to how best they do it".

AFP witnesses at the CMI Committee could not categorically rule out whether, as a result of the people smuggling disruption program:

... fuel suppliers had been encouraged not to supply fuel to people smuggling vessels;

... food had not been provided to people smuggling vessels;

... sugar had been put in the fuel tank of a people smuggling vessel, or that;

... sand was put in the engine of a vessel.

But what is deeply concerning about the disruption program is that there appear to be no accountability mechanisms ­ nothing to ensure that Australia¹s disruption policy does not lead to illegal or life threatening events, either directly or indirectly.

We still do not know if disruption extends to physical interference with vessels, nor do we know what consideration has been given to questions of maritime safety.

Last year AFP informant Kevin Enniss, who admitted to taking money from asylum seekers, also, according to Channel Nine¹s Sunday programme, bragged that he had paid Indonesian locals to scuttle people smuggling boats with passengers onboard on four or five occasions. Mr Enniss claimed that boats were sunk close to land so everyone got off safely . Mr Enniss has since denied involvement in sabotaging vessels in Indonesia.

We do know a number of Australian agencies are involved in the People Smuggling Disruption Programme. Along with the Australian Federal Police - the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) and the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) all have a role.

Slowly but surely, details about Government funding and resources to support the disruption programme in Indonesia are coming to light.

Specifically in relation to ASIS, Dark Victory reports one Canberra source claimed that the Abu Quassey boat (or SIEVX) was a target of ASIS ­ Australia¹s Foreign Intelligence Service ­ which by this stage had been instructed by the Australian Government to disrupt people smuggling operations in Indonesia.

Thanks to our questioning in Senate Committees we now know of:

... The establishment of the Canberra based Joint Agency People-Smuggling Strike Team, consisting of fifteen officers from the AFP and Immigration;

... The creation of a PM&C led People Smuggling Task Force that met on a daily basis before the last election;

... A specific protocol between the Australian Federal Police and the Indonesian National Police to target people smuggling syndicates operating out of Indonesia;

... Two Immigration positions at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta created to primarily work on people smuggling matters;

... Two AFP agents working out of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta and reporting back to the people smuggling taskforce in Canberra on disruption activities: and

... An Inter-Agency Co-ordination Group on People Smuggling at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta involving the Ambassador and Foreign Affairs, Immigration, Australian Federal Police and Defence representatives. We know that disruption activities are a key focus of this group.

Minister's knowledge of disruption?

Last year I began asking questions about Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock¹s trip to Jakarta in June 2001 but received little information from any of the departments involved.

According to Dark Victory, when Mr Ruddock met with the Inter-Agency People Smuggling Group on the 13 June 2001 at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, he raised the issue of piracy, and why pirates were not targeting asylum seeker vessels.

Dark Victory sources claim that some present at the meeting thought Mr Ruddock might be "thinking of some covert action involving pirates". AFP officer Leigh Dixon expressed frustration at Mr Ruddock¹s line of questioning and eventually cut him off saying he was unaware of the actions of pirates.

Asked for a response to these allegations Mr Ruddock appeared to confirm the conversation about pirates to the authors of Dark Victory David Marr and Marian Wilkinson when he stated and I quote:

"There had been a great deal of public comment on that topic around the time of several meetings I had during visits to Indonesia".

Mr Ruddock also provided Marr and Wilkinson with a copy of an article dated 19th July 2001 about the issue of piracy.

However this article explains little as it simply indicates that piracy was a growing problem in the region, and that pirates primarily target cargo ships not people smuggling vessels. I note the article was published a month after Mr Ruddock¹s visit to the Australian Embassy in Jakarta ­ so it sheds no light on why he would have raised the issue of piracy at the Embassy meeting.

In fact a search for media articles about the issue of piracy before Mr Ruddock¹s visit to Jakarta in June 2001 just draws a blank.

It is unclear why Mr Ruddock raised the issue of piracy at the Jakarta meeting ­ it is clearly time for Mr Ruddock to explain himself.

According one of Wilkinson and Marr¹s sources, who attended the same meeting, Mr Ruddock also asked whether people smuggler boats could be stopped by physically interfering with them. Mr Ruddock allegedly asked in a joking tone "well could we interfere with the boats?" Apparently in response Federal Agent Dixon reminded Mr Ruddock of obligations under Australian law. The conversation ended when Ruddock laughed the matter off and said it was just a concept in the air.

Mr Ruddock has not said whether the issue of sabotage was raised at this meeting. Mr Ruddock has told David Marr and Marian Wilkinson; "I have no formal recollection of any of those discussions which I am prepared to discuss". Again, Mr Ruddock should come clean and say what he knows, or knew, about any covert operations involving people smuggling vessels in Indonesia.

Since the publication of Dark Victory Commissioner Keelty has confirmed that AFP Officer Leigh Dixon, who was present at the June 2001 meeting, discussed this matter with his superiors. Commissioner Keelty has told a Senate Committee that when he heard about the June meeting in Jakarta involving Mr Ruddock he "expressed concern" .

Let me say I have serious concerns about what took place at that meeting on 13 June 2001 at our embassy in Jakarta. I can assure you we will continue to investigate what transpired at the meeting and what resulted from it.

In September 2001 the Indonesian Government cancelled the protocol on people smuggling between the Australian Federal Police and the Indonesian National Police. We still don¹t know why the protocol was cancelled. I have been informed by highly placed sources that the cancellation was at least in part due to the Indonesian Government¹s concerns about the disruption programme.

Despite the cancellation of the protocol, the Australian Federal Police and their Indonesian counterparts agreed that disruption activities could continue, on a case by case arrangement.

From documents tabled at the CMI Committee it is clear that such activities did continue after the protocol was cancelled. According to the Government¹s People Smuggling Task Force notes on the 12 October, just a week before SIEVX sank, the taskforce discussed ways of "beefing up" disruption activity in Indonesia. According to Commissioner Keelty this probably was an "operational call along the lines of: The departure of the vessel is imminent; we'd better be doing everything we can possibly do" to stop the vessel.

What I want to know about the disruption program in Indonesia is what precisely Australian or Indonesian authorities were doing in order to disrupt vessels? What activities were acceptable or sanctioned; what were not? Where were the checks? What were the accountability measures? How can we be satisfied lives were not put at risk?

It is all very well for Australian authorities to assure us that everything done in Indonesia to disrupt people smuggling vessels was legal. But given that no accountability mechanisms appeared to be in place, ­how can we be sure?

I believe the only way we can be certain that nothing illegal or inappropriate has occurred under the auspices of the disruption program is through a full and independent judicial inquiry. I have consistently called for such an inquiry to be established. The CMI Committee in its final report also called for such an inquiry. Its establishment remains a high priority.

Australian Government focus ­ after 11 September 2001

While the Howard Government was beefing up its disruption programme in Indonesia, the world was beginning to focus on the very real threat of terrorism after the attacks in America on September 11.

September 11 was more than just a wake up call to the nations of South East Asia. It became clear very quickly that al Qaeda was active in our region. In December 2001 the Singapore Government¹s Internal Security Department arrested and detained 13 members of the al Qaeda-affiliated group Jemaah Islamiah who were planning to bomb a number of sites in Singapore possibly including the United States and Israeli Embassies and the Australian High Commission.

The Singapore High Commissioner Ashok Mirpuri, in a letter to the Financial Review in April 2002 indicated "only the blind would have missed the increased religiosity and radicalism of Islam" in South East Asia and even his Government had been surprised to find that "jihad terrorism" could win converts in Singapore.

Australia¹s intelligence effort in Jakarta

It is interesting to note according to Dark Victory, that while intelligence chiefs in Canberra after September 11 switched their focus and priority to the terrorist threat at home and abroad, Australia¹s intelligence effort in Jakarta remained strongly focused on people smuggling. This was despite the warnings the United States Embassy in Jakarta gave to the Australian Embassy about the activities of al Qaeda in Indonesia.

Marian Wilkinson has claimed that there is a serious question mark over whether the Government gave the al-Qaeda threat in Indonesia the attention it demanded before the Bali bombings. An intelligence expert even told Wilkinson "Those of us who believed the threat was there were called alarmists and pessimists, but we called ourselves realists".

Research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St Andrews University in Scotland, Rohan Gunaratna, has expressed similar concerns:

"Despite a dozen Australian citizens and residents having participated in JI and Al Qaeda training camps from Mindanao in the Philippines to Afghanistan, the Government's assessments and operational agencies did not believe that the threat was 'significant' until the Bali bombings happened".

Howard Government's response to September 11

So there is an issue here, because, although the Howard Government announced a number of counter terrorism initiatives after September 11 Australia¹s focus in Indonesia appears to have remained well and truly on the electorally sensitive issue of people smuggling.

Well, could more have been done in the fight against terrorism in our region?

Let's look at the record. Let's compare the initiatives the Government has taken in our region on people smuggling to those it has taken in the fight against terrorism, particularly after September 11.

... In 2000 the Howard Government signed a specific protocol under the existing MOU with Indonesia to "target people smuggling syndicates operating out of Indonesia".

... In 2002 Australia signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Indonesia to counter terrorism.

... In February 2002 and in April 2003 Australia and Indonesia co-chaired a Regional Ministerial Conference on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime. In two to three years time there will be another regional conference on people smuggling.

... In March 2003 Alexander Downer announced that the Howard Government would organise in the next year an ASEAN regional workshop on managing the consequences of a terrorist attack as well as arranging with the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific a regional conference on security issues including terrorism. However to date the Australian Government has not organised a regional conference specifically focused on fighting terrorism ­ despite Labor¹s calls for one.

... In early 2002 Australia created the new position of Ambassador for People Smuggling "to promote a coherent and effective international approach to combating people smuggling, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region".

... In early 2003, almost six months after the Bali Bombings, the Government created the new position of an Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism. Last weekend it was announced that the Counter-Terrorism Ambassador Nick Warner, who had only been in the job for a few months, would now lead the Australian intervention force in the Solomons. What does this mean for Mr Warner¹s role as Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism?

Don't forget that the Howard Government has tried to link the terrorism and asylum seeker issues.

During the last election campaign the Howard Government made the false claim that asylum seekers arriving on boats might be terrorists.

It was the then Defence Minister Peter Reith who first made this outrageous claim in a blaze of publicity ­ without any evidence to support it at all.

In the final week of the 2001 election campaign John Howard told the public and I quote:

"I mean you have to be able to say that there is a possibility that some people having links with organisations that we don¹t want in this country might use the path of an asylum seeker in order to get here".

Again, there was no truth to this claim. As ASIO Director Dennis Richardson indicated last year, none of the illegal immigrants arriving in Australia by boat to date had "received an adverse security assessment in terms of posing a direct or indirect threat to Australia's security". Richardson debunked the idea at a conference in Hobart in May 2002 when he said:

"Why would people use the asylum seeker stream when they know they will be subject to mandatory detention?"

The Government's claims that asylum seekers might be terrorists were really low rent politics from a low rent Government. What else would you expect from the same Government who were directing the Defence Department during the 2001 election not to take "personalising or humanising images" of asylum seekers. Put simply, suggesting asylum seekers might be terrorists was just another way to fudge the facts and debase the political process right at the most sensitive time of the electoral cycle.

Conclusion

When another asylum seeker boat arrived off the West Australian Coast a couple of weeks ago with about 50 Vietnamese people onboard seeking asylum - John Howard indicated that he was prepared to spend whatever money it took to deter boatpeople from arriving on the Australian mainland.

Well, already an awful lot of taxpayers' dollars have been spent. But have there been other costs?

What has been the cost of the Howard Government's disruption programme in Indonesia ­ not just the financial cost?

I said recently in Parliament and I have no reason to change my view:

"The issue of sabotage of people smugglers' vessels has been canvassed by the AFP informant Kevin Enniss. I ask these questions: was Enniss involved in the sabotage of vessels? Were others involved in the sabotage of vessels? Do Australian ministers, officials or agencies have knowledge of such activities? And what about the vessel now known as SIEVX, part of the people-smuggling operation of the notorious people smuggler Abu Quassey? That vessel set sail on 18 October 2001 and sank on 19 October 2001, drowning 353 people, including 142 women and 146 children. Were disruption activities directed against Abu Quassey? Did these involve SIEVX?

I intend to keep asking questions until I find out. "I intend to keep pressing for an independent judicial inquiry into these very serious matters".

Ladies and Gentleman, I hope you agree that although this issue may not be popular; although these matters may not win many votes; a serious Opposition cannot resile from pursuing them and holding the Howard Government and its Ministers accountable for their decisions and their actions.

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