Indonesia’s foreign minister has asked the Australian government to explain claims that its authorities paid people smugglers to return 65 asylum seekers, including several Sri Lankans, to Indonesian waters, as a local police chief insists the payment occurred, the Sydney Morning Herald reported
Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi approached Australian ambassador Paul Grigson in Jakarta on Saturday. “I just asked him what is it about, tell me what is it about,” she told reporters. “He promised to take my inquiry, my questions, to Canberra and he promised to get back to me again.”
The police chief from Rote island, Hidayat, where the boat ended up, has angrily hit out at Australian government ministers who have denied the allegations.
Fairfax Media is aware of the contents of a detailed official report submitted to the Indonesian National Police in Jakarta, which is now also investigating the incident, and has seen photographs of stacks of $US100 bills allegedly paid to the boat crew.
The report outlines claims by the boat’s captain, Yohanis Humiang, that an Australian official gave each of the six crew members $US5000 on the condition they never engage in people smuggling again.
Hidayat is adamant the captain is speaking the truth. He said the money had been given to the crew by an Australian official and was not evidence of a crime.
“Wasn’t your trip here because you do not believe my story [that money was paid to crew]?” Mr Hidayat told Fairfax Media. “I believe it was The Sydney Morning Herald article that says the minister denies the payment? Just say it frankly, you don’t believe me.”
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop have denied the payments took place. However Prime Minister Tony Abbott refused to answer the question, saying: “The Australian government will do whatever we need to do to keep this evil trade stopped.”
Another source showed Fairfax Media a photograph of six stacks of $US100 bills with the serial numbers and names of the people who were supposed to receive the money. The photo forms part of the report to the National Police.
The crew asked for the money to be sent to their villages but it remains at Rote police station.
Mr Hidayat said Mr Abbott had campaigned to stop the boats, which was why he had been elected prime minister. “He’s keeping his promise. Nothing will change, he will stop the boats. More than once they [Australia] breached Indonesian waters, they admitted that. Then there was the orange boats. Now these, it could encourage people smugglers to smuggle more immigrants, hoping for payment.”
Foreign Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir said once the national police investigation was completed Indonesia would seek further clarification from the Australian government.
“The push-back policy is already bad enough,” Mr Nasir said. “And now if this incident is confirmed this would be a new law in the way this issue is being handled. The question would then arise whether this constitutes an authority collaborating and abetting with people smugglers to re-traffic the people.”
The Rote police report says that in April the crew was recruited to work on a fishing boat by a broker called Arman Yohanes in Jakarta.
Mr Yohanis, the captain, was from Menado in North Sulawesi, a region famous for its sailors. The crew was promised 20 million rupiah ($AUD2000) each but had not been paid.
The crew gathered at Cempaka Hotel in Jakarta in May and taken to Pelabuhan Ratu, where on May 5 they were transferred to a fishing boat.
The organiser told the crew to take 65 asylum seekers – including a pregnant woman and three young children – to New Zealand.
The crew members insist they were in international waters when the asylum seeker boat was twice intercepted by Australian customs and then the navy. The report says the boat was first stopped in international waters by a customs ship which warned the crew they could not enter Australian waters.
Four days later the boat was intercepted by the navy and Mr Yohanis was interrogated by customs.
The captain reportedly agreed to be towed to Ashmore Reef, which is in Australian territorial waters, after the second interception because their boat was unseaworthy and unlikely to reach New Zealand.
The official report says an Australian official named Agus, who spoke fluent Indonesian, told Mr Yohanis that Australia would not accept the asylum seekers.
“From the communication, he was generous and said: ‘We can’t accept you brought us immigrants here. Each of you will be given $US5000. With one condition: that you go back to Indonesia, use it for business and never do this kind of work ever again’,” Agus reportedly told the crew.
The 65 asylum seekers from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar were then transferred onto two wooden boats called Jasmine and Kanak. They were given a map of Rote island, life jackets and food and sent back to Indonesia.
Seaweed farmers on Landu island, the southernmost populated island of Indonesia, spotted the asylum seekers stranded on rocks at 4.30pm on May 31.
Some of the crew swum ashore and hired a local fisherman’s boat to Rote.
While most of the asylum seekers had put on lifejackets and were swimming ashore, village chief Semuel Messak says 10 people, mostly women and children, were still stranded on board the Kanak. One woman was breast feeding.
When all of the asylum seekers had been evacuated in small boats, they gathered at Mr Semuel’s home.
The whole village provided clothes, with Mr Semuel donating 18 sarongs and his wife cooked them noodles, fish and rice.
Police took the asylum seekers to Rote the following day.
Police chief Hidayat said humanity was the first consideration for Indonesians when dealing with asylum seekers.
“They are not animals, they are people,” he said. “What if it was us in their shoes?”
A source said Australian Federal Police officers had not been allowed to interview the crew.