An asylum seeker boat off the coast of Indonesia

Amnesty International has said a royal commission should be called to determine whether Australian authorities breached international and Australian law in allegedly paying people smugglers to turn back boats to Indonesia.

But although Attorney-General George Brandis could allow a proper investigation into whether the government paid people smugglers to turn boats around, it’s unlikely we will see one any time soon.

In October last year, Amnesty International alleged that Australian officials paid a  group of six people smugglers US$32,000 to turn a boat carrying 65 Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi and Burmese passengers back to Indonesia in May 2015. To obtain this evidence, the organisation interviewed the crew, the asylum seekers aboard and Indonesian officials who intercepted the boat on its return to Indonesia and have subsequently persecuted the crew for people-smuggling crimes.

The government has refused to either confirm or deny payments were made, except to say that Operation Sovereign Borders operates within Australian domestic law and in line with international obligations.

A parliamentary committee hearing today examining the allegations that Australian officials paid people smugglers called this claim into question.

Amnesty International’s government relations manager, Steph Cousins, told the committee today there was “strong evidence” of at least two payments made by Australian officials during turnbacks (of which the government confirmed there had been 23 so far), and that those payments were in breach of Australian and international law: “Australia has breached a number of international laws to which it is a party.”

There is no indication that the government will investigate the claims. Cousins said the Australian Federal Police was examining whether to investigate the claims.

Amnesty International refugee co-ordinator Graham Thom said a full royal commission was required to have the ability to compel witnesses to give evidence:

“It’s about getting as much evidence as we possibly can. It’s about being able to compel witnesses. We want to get both sides of the story. Breaches of domestic and international law may be occurring, and the only way we can get to the bottom of that is through a royal commission.”

Amnesty’s claims were backed up by legal experts who spoke at the inquiry. Liberal Senator Ian Macdonald suggested the legal advice was “based on hearsay” given the government was refusing to confirm or deny the payments. David Manne, a solicitor from the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, suggested Attorney-General George Brandis was the sole gatekeeper preventing a proper investigation into the matter:

“The executive has failed consistently to provide any serious or substantial response to the serious allegations. The way in which to further the matter would be for the executive to provide a proper response, and one that provides sufficient acocuntability and disclosure, and that hasn’t happened.”

Department of Immigration secretary Michael Pezzullo and Operation Sovereign Borders commander Andrew Bottrell both gave limited evidence to the hearing, stating Immigration Minister Peter Dutton had said the operations of Sovereign Borders were subject to a public interest immunity claim that would prevent full disclosure of the events of May and July last year.

Bottrell said he “strongly rejected” suggestions that as a result of turning back the boats it would put people in harm’s way, but he refused to elaborate because it would “give people smugglers a better understanding of the tactics we deploy”. Bottrell stated that a decision had been made to move the crew and passengers from their boat to one provided by the government because the weather conditions were “rough” and the boat was in poor condition.

When specifically asked whether Australian officials paid people smugglers to turn back their boat, Bottrell said he could neither confirm or deny on the matter because it could harm national security, defence, or international relations.

Pezzullo gave a similar answer:

“We’re neither confirming nor denying it; we’re simply not commenting.”

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection investigated claims in the Amnesty International report around the treatment of asylum seekers by officials during the two interceptions, but the report has yet to be finalised.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey