Report from Pacific Media Centre
Jewel Topsfield and Amilia Rosa on Rote Island, Indonesia
The captain of an asylum seeker boat who said he was paid thousands of dollars by an Australian official to return to Indonesia has been sentenced to five years and eight months’ jail on people smuggling charges.
The panel of judges also ordered Yohanis Humiang, 35, to pay 700 million rupiah ($70,000) or serve an additional five months in prison.
The remaining five crew members were sentenced to five years and six months’ jail and a fine of 500 million rupiah or an extra three months’ prison time.
The cash payment scandal caused a diplomatic incident between Indonesia and Australia last year and led to a Senate inquiry and calls for a Royal Commission.
In June, Fairfax Media revealed an Indonesian police investigation had found the crew of the boat, which was intercepted by the Australian Navy, had been paid $US32,000 to return 65 asylum seekers to Indonesia.
“Since they received money from Australian customs, then it’s proven that they (the captain and crew) made a profit from another party,” presiding judge Ari Wahyu Irawan said on Thursday.
The explosive revelations were never denied by former prime minister Tony Abbott, who said the Australian government stopped the boats “by hook or by crook”. He also said border protection agencies were “incredibly creative in coming up with a whole range of strategies to break this evil trade”.
Judge Irawan said the crew members felt remorse for people smuggling and had families who were dependent on them. However, he said their act encouraged others to come to Indonesia and the people-smuggling trade to prosper in the nation, which had a very wide border.
Humiang said in November that he and the other crew members had made a mistake but were the victims of people-smuggling agents. He said the agents had told them they would not be paid until they took the asylum seekers, who were mostly from Sri Lanka, to New Zealand.
“We were just earning a living, we were trying to make money for our family, none of us intended to commit a crime,” he said.
Humiang said last year that the turn-back payments, negotiated by an Australian official called “Agus”, were on the condition he “never ever do this work ever again”.
Indonesian police were highly critical of the Australian Navy for sending the asylum seekers back to Indonesia on two boats with just one drum of fuel each, with one saying it was akin to a “suicide mission”.
One of the turned back-boats ran out of fuel, and the asylum seekers were forced to transfer to the second in the middle of the ocean. The second boat then hit a reef near Landu Island in West Rote and the asylum seekers were rescued by local villagers.
An Amnesty International report last year called for a Royal Commission into the people-smuggling payments. It found Australian officials committed a transnational crime by, in effect, directing a people-smuggling operation, and put dozens of lives at risk by forcing asylum seekers onto poorly-equipped vessels.
The Australian government has repeatedly insisted that all of its officers acted within the law. However some public officials — such as those from the Australian Secret Intelligence Service — may have immunity from prosecution under Australian law.
The Senate inquiry, which is due to report in March, is examining, among other things, the legality of any payments to the crew members, the damage caused to the bilateral relationship and the extent to which “any such bribes constitute an incentive for people-smuggling operations in Australia”.
The asylum seekers remain in limbo in Indonesia. Kandiha Kayuran and his wife, who gave birth in December, are still in immigration detention in Kupang.
He said they had no idea what the future held. “No one cares, New Zealand is not listening, and Australia too, even after the Amnesty report came out. Please help us.”