The Guardian June 26, 2002


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.

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