The SIEV-X tragedy.
How much did the government know?
by Peter Mac There's been a further revelation for the Australian Senate's inquiry into the "children overboard" hoax. It was recently revealed that the asylum seeker boat SIEV-X, which sank last October 18 with the loss of 353 passengers, was in international waters, not in Indonesian waters as Prime Minister Howard alleged. The discrepancy is highly significant. The Howard Government appears to have violated this international law of the sea (after all, doesn't the boarding of vessels in international waters and forcing them back where it came from constitute an act of piracy?). Australia officially recognises the law of the sea with regard to rescuing survivors of stricken vessels. Moreover, by subjecting an area of international waters to frequent surveillance as part of its "border protection" policy, the Government implicitly raises its responsibility for sea rescue in this area to a high level. And if the Government knew of the imminent sinking of the asylum seeker boat SIEV-X and did not take steps to rescue the survivors, it could quite reasonably be held responsible for the deaths of 353 people. So what did the Government know about the plight of the SIEV-X? The Prime Minister and cabinet Ministers deny all knowledge of the whereabouts of the vessel when it sank, and therefore responsibility for rescuing survivors. However, their credibility is now in tatters. Howard's statement that SIEV- X sank in Indonesian waters has been contradicted by the Chief of Australian Coastwatch, Admiral Bonser. He testified that information had almost immediately been received about the ship's departure from Indonesia on October 18, as well as about its poor condition and overcrowding (4 times the acceptable limit), and about its position in international waters before it sank. The mystery has deepened because of testimony from some of the vessel's 44 survivors. They have stated that they were forced onto the boat at gunpoint by Indonesian soldiers, despite its obvious unseaworthiness and lack of capacity. Moreover, they say that before the SIEV-X sank, three grey ships were within sight of it. The ships were shining lights on the sea, but failed to respond to shouts and life-jacket whistle blasts from those in the water. The survivors were later told by Indonesian navy personnel that the three unidentified craft were Australian Navy ships. Navy representatives have now contradicted earlier evidence that they were searching the area in question the day before the ship sank. They deny that any special search was carried out other than normal aerial surveillance, or that any of its ships were within 150 nautical miles of SIEV-X when it sank. (Even if a search had been in progress, to reveal this might be construed as a violation of national security and therefore as an offence under the Crimes Act.) And just in case you thought that further testimony at the Senate inquiry would shed more light on the subject, think again. Although the Defence task force assisting the Senate inquiry has asked the Navy to prepare a full report on the events associated with the SIEV-X sinking, the head of the task force has been banned from testifying by Defence Minister Robert Hill.