One February day in Canberra in 2002, I was having coffee in Manuka with my friend Professor Tony Milner of ANU, outlining my forebodings over the Australian Government’s implausible official statements regarding the sinking of the boat I was soon to name SIEV X (“Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel, Unknown”) (Canberra Times, March 25, 2002).
This small overloaded boat sank in a storm on its way from Java to Australia’s Christmas Island on October 19, 2001 - almost five years ago - drowning 353 asylum-seekers. Most were women and children, drowned trying to reunite with husbands and fathers already arrived in Australia over the previous two years.
I ran through the ways in which the government story was not making sense. Tony replied “Whatever the truth may turn out to be, you won’t let go of this: you’ll be like a dog with a bone because once you get your teeth into an issue that is what you do”.
Later that week I wrote to Simon Crean, then leader of the Opposition, followed by two formal submissions in March and April to the Senate Select Committee into a Certain Maritime Incident - the CMI committee - set up to investigate the notorious “children overboard” incident. I asked the CMI to examine SIEV X: What did the Australian Government and its agencies know about this boat and its fate, and when? Did we have any responsibility for the tragedy? Did we have a duty of care to save the survivors that we shirked?
I testified before the CMI committee on May 1, 2002 and my questions were duly mocked by government senators as being beyond credibility.
SIEV X became a front-page story in May and June 2002. The media smelled an unravelling government cover-up. The government regained control by releasing spurious maps of RAAF air searches of the area where SIEV X went down. These apparently plausible search records turned out much later to be no more than “indicative” approximations of reality, not worth the paper they were printed on.
The Senate committee handed down an uneasily equivocal consensus report in October 2002. Opposition senators’ misgivings on the SIEV X and Australian official people smuggling disruption activities in Indonesia were clear in their individual report chapters and in their oral statements, but were papered over in the main consensus report.
The media dropped the story, despite important later evidence in 2003 that government witnesses under oath had misrepresented truth in the inquiry. Four condemnatory Senate motions were passed in 2002-2004 and questioning by senators has continued even until now, by Senator Christine Milne of the Greens in particular. But government agencies continue to misrepresent the truth in lockstep, modifying the official version as it suits them.
There have been three successive official stories on where the boat sank: in Indonesian waters (from 2001 to early 2005), in international waters (for much of 2005) and now this strained form of words since early 2006, “The Australian Government’s position is that the location where the vessel sank is unknown”. The truth (from Australian official documents and other strong sources) is that the boat sank 50-60km south of Sunda Strait in international waters, and in the declared border protection zone being monitored by ADF elements at the time of sinking. It is a truth the Australian Government is again now not prepared to admit.
The story of Abu Quassey, convicted organiser of the voyage, is also remarkable. Under international media outrage, he was detained in Indonesia for a year after the sinking as an illegal immigrant in conditions of great VIP luxury. Australian law enforcement agencies did everything possible not to bring him to Australia for trial over the SIEV X deaths, or even under people smuggling charges. Eventually, Indonesian authorities sent him home to Egypt where he was sentenced in a closed court to 5 1/4 token years as a people smuggler and for “accidental manslaughter”, under an AFP-provided brief of evidence never made public.
A minor accomplice, Khaleed Daoed, was extradited from Sweden in 2003 and tried in Brisbane in 2005 as a SIEV X people smuggler. To survivors’ distress, the court was not interested in investigating the sinking, but useful information about Quassey’s modus operandi and his powerful official Indonesian connections nevertheless leaked through the carefully controlled prosecution case. Daoed, who said little, received a light sentence.
The government thus appears today to have put the SIEV X genie back into the bottle.
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