The Australian Federal Police finally fronted the media this morning about the extent of their role in the arrest of the Bali Nine. The AFP has refused to answer questions for months on the actions they took in the lead-up to the arrest of the nine Australians, as journalists took a renewed interest in the case prior to the execution of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan last week.

This press conference has been a long time coming.

But Deputy Commissioner Mike Phelan, who headed up the original investigation and today took personal responsibility for the decision to tip off the Indonesian police, was unconvincing in his explanation of why the AFP could not have arrested the Australians when they returned to Australia with their drug haul.

Commissioner Andrew Colvin said the AFP lacked sufficient evidence to arrest the group before they left Australia — and this is plausible. But why couldn’t the AFP arrest them on their return, instead of handing them over to a justice system with a reputation for rampant corruption and a history of handing down the death penalty to drug smugglers?

Phelan admitted that the “mules” (those actually carrying the drugs) would have been relatively easy to target on their return to Australia, but he said the group would have been unlikely to co-operate with the AFP and give evidence against Andrew Chan, or the other six Australians who were subsequently arrested and charged here.

Phelan said:

“The mere fact we were able to prosecute the other six in Australia — and some other witnesses were indemnified witnesses and gave evidence against other couriers — the only reason we were able to use that leverage was because of what happened in Indonesia.”

The comments raise disturbing questions about the use of the heavy hand of the Indonesian justice system — wielding the threat of the death penalty — to extract information from the Australians. Information that could not, apparently, have been extracted in Australia, where penalties for drug smuggling are much lower.

The AFP might think this press conference will shut the door on this case, but Phelan’s actions in particular deserve to attract much more scrutiny in the coming months.

Peter Fray

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