The Australian Federal Police has insisted its entire handling of the Bali nine case was appropriate at every stage, and attacked criticism over the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran as “in bad taste” and “misinformed”, saying it had no choice but to provide information to Indonesian authorities despite knowing the death penalty might result.

At a media conference this morning, AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin, flanked by Deputy Commissioners Mike Phelan, who was involved directly with the case, and Leanne Close, refused to apologise to the families of Chan and Sukumaran, declined to rule out Australians being executed on the basis of AFP intelligence in the future, and insisted that asking Indonesian police to pursue the group was the best operational decision.

Phelan, specifically and in detail, rejected claims by the family of Bali nine member Scott Rush and barrister Robert Byers that the AFP promised to prevent Rush from travelling to Bali after Rush’s father had provided a crucial tip-off.

He argued the AFP was already investigating the syndicate and Rush’s involvement, and that it could not have arrested Rush or prevented him from travelling without reducing the chances of successfully prosecuting other syndicate members. No commitments were made to Rush’s family, Phelan insisted.

Phelan and Colvin also argued that the AFP was correct to not wait until the Bali nine returned to Australia before acting. They claimed that the drug couriers may have passed the eight kilograms of drugs they were importing to other aircraft passengers or corrupt airport insiders (a possibility admitted by Phelan as “remote”) and that the arrest of the group in Indonesia helped the prosecution of another six members of the syndicate in Australia.

Allowing the group to return to Australia might, Colvin and Phelan argued, would have allowed the drugs to be lost from the plane and would have reduced the chances of prosecuting syndicate organisers.

Key organisers of the syndicate, however, remain at large or were able to flee, but the AFP questioned whether the claim that the “kingpins” remained free was accurate, repeatedly saying it had prosecuted a further six low-level members of the group here in Australia.

The AFP repeatedly came back to its insistence that its primary duty was to protect Australians from “the scourge of drugs”, with Close boasting that the AFP had in recent years stopped drugs worth “eight hits for every man, women and child in Australia”.

However, despite his repeated declaration that there was nothing inappropriate or wrong about the AFP’s actions, Colvin refused in the face of repeated questioning to say the AFP would act in the same way again, suggesting it might behave differently if circumstances were repeated.

He claimed that the AFP was “hampered” by restrictions on cooperation with death-penalty countries but that that was “appropriate” given the government’s stance on the death penalty.

Colvin said criticism of the AFP, suggestions it had blood on its hands, and that it had traded the Bali nine in exchange for a better relationship with Indonesian authorities on terrorism, were “in bad taste” and upset individual officers engaged in dangerous anti-drugs operations.

The AFP even rejected criticism that it had failed to explain itself, insisting its officers had answered questions in parliamentary committee hearings, court proceedings and media conferences, but had chosen not to do so recently out of concern for the government’s efforts to obtain clemency for Chan and Sukumaran.

The broader message from Colvin, Phelan and Close was consistent with its previous position: the AFP did nothing wrong on the Bali nine and it has nothing to be sorry for in the case.

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey