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Australia: three charged in asylum deaths

by Staff Writers
Perth, Australia (UPI) Jan 26, 2011
An Australian court charged three Indonesians with people smuggling after their vessel smashed against rocks in December, killing around 50 of the 90 passengers.

The men, aged 60, 32 and 22, were denied bail after the hearing in Perth, Western Australia. Another alleged people smuggler is believed to have left the vessel before it entered Australian waters.

If found guilty, each defendant can be sentenced to 20 years in prison and fined around $220,000.

All three men will appear in court Feb. 15 for the start of a trial into the deaths of the asylum seekers, many of whose dramatic last moments were filmed close up as they clung to the wooden ship breaking apart against shoreline rocks in high seas.

Onlookers could be seen standing onshore but unable to reach the stricken vessel.

The wreck of the Siev 221 raised questions over the efficiency and effectiveness of Australia's maritime patrol services to intercept the overcrowded and rickety ships before they enter Australian waters.

As with many asylum seeker boats, the Siev 221 crossed the Indian Ocean to arrive at Rocky Point on Christmas Island but the seas were extremely heavy. The Australian territory is 750 miles from the mainland off Australia's west coast but, because it lies 180 miles from Indonesia, people smugglers target the island as a place to unload their human cargo.

Rescue attempts to reach the vessel were severely hampered by rough seas and bad weather.

Of the 90 people on board, 42 survived, including the accused smugglers, and 30 bodies -- including three babies -- were recovered. The bodies of the remaining passengers were never found, although many were seen floating in the water as waves smashed into the ship and shore.

"Each of you facilitated the bringing or coming to Australia of a group of five or more people ... namely a group of 69 Iranian, Iraqi and Kurdish people and to do so reckless as to whether the people had a lawful right to come to Australia,'' Magistrate Joe Randazzo said in the court session.

The three alleged people smugglers are "very upset," their lawyer David McKenzie said after the hearing. "They're very unhappy. It's a total tragedy."

The fate of the Siev 221 highlighted dangers to asylum seekers who put their lives in the hands of people smugglers, almost always after paying thousands of dollars for the trip.

Australia has been fighting a propaganda war to make would-be passengers aware of the dangers and that they face months of detention in crowded camps awaiting processing and likely return to their home countries.

Despite the efforts, the issue is a political nightmare for successive Australian governments as they cope with increasing numbers of asylum seekers.

Around 5,000 asylum seekers arrived in Australian waters last year and the main detention center on Christmas Island is at capacity. Some of the detainees, especially women with children, are being shipped to smaller camps near remote small towns on the mainland.

This week the Customs and Border Protection Command released an internal report into the Siev 221 tragedy that said little more could have been done given the atrocious weather conditions.

Also, Australian authorities didn't have "actionable" intelligence about the boat leaving Indonesia, the report said. Under the conditions, the 1 hour and 25 minutes taken for navy and customs boats to reach the sinking vessel was reasonable.

"We had no intelligence saying that vessel had departed (Indonesia) and would arrive at that time," Customs chief Michael Carmody said. "We didn't know about that specific vessel."

The government will adopt the report's eight recommendations, including setting up land-based radar on Christmas Island and an on-shore system that can fire life preservers into the sea in the event of a boat breaking up close to shore.

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Australia: three charged in asylum deaths

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