the sinking of SIEV X
A remarkable book by Tony Kevin
A Certain Maritime Incident joins the dots for the first time to reveal a disquieting record of government misconduct, including Australian Federal Police involvement in a people-smuggling 'disruption program', and an extraordinary combination of stone-walling and professed ignorance by a government dedicated to micro-managing the deterrence of asylum-seeker voyages.
In October 2001, over 400 asylum-seekers departed from Indonesia in a grossly overcrowded, unseaworthy boat bound for Australia. Somewhere between the two countries the boat sank, with a terrible loss of life - 353 of the asylum-seekers drowned.
The Australian government claimed it had no prior knowledge of the unfolding tragedy. Yet ministers and senior officials from the beginning tried to mislead the Australian Senate and the community over important questions. What did the government and its agencies know about the boat and its fate, and when? Did we have any responsibility for the tragedy? Did we have a duty of care to save the survivors that we shirked?
Many of the victims of this disaster have family members living in Australia on temporary protection visas. This book is dedicated to them. It is also for the rest of us because, Tony Kevin argues, nothing less than a comprehensive judicial enquiry into the sinking of SIEV X will suffice if Australia is to regain its national honour.
The treatment of refugees is one of the great scandals of the modern age... With impressive courage and determination, Tony Kevin has unearthed the grim and deeply moving story he recounts in this remarkable book -- an "always powerfully contested story," and one of "durable national significance" that has "crept into the hearts and consciences of many Australians" and must find its way to the hearts and consciences of many others if these persistent and shocking crimes are to be brought to end.
Tony Kevin retired from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1998, after a thirty-year public service career. He served in the Prime Minister's Department, and was Australia's ambassador to Poland and Cambodia. He is currently an honorary visiting fellow at the ANU Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies. He has written extensively on Australian foreign, national security and refugee policies in Australia's national print media, including Eureka Street, Canberra Times, the Age, Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian, and Australian Financial Review. Since February 2002, his research has been focused on the sinking of the asylum-seeker boat that he named SIEV X. Source - Scribe Publications
About the publication Tony Kevin, A Certain Maritime Incident: the sinking of SIEV X (2004): This book is now out of stock, and we no longer supply it to our members or to the wider public. We suggest you could search for online new or second-hand bookshops to secure your copy.
30 October 2005: Tony Kevin's SIEV X 4th Anniversary Speech - "All of us who care - and there are many of us - can use our rights of free speech and free enquiry, and free debate on the internet, to keep the questions about SIEV X alive."
19 October 2005: The SIEV X Landmark of Conscience - "When the evening ended, senators, members of the ACT assembly, officials from museums and planning authorities, and most importantly the refugees themselves, all expressed the same view. You must build it."
18 October 2005: SIEV X four years on: still drowning in spin - Like all disasters in the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in Australia, the SIEV X affair will not finish until all questions are answered, all documents held in secret by the Howard government are released, and all those who know things they have not told the Australian people, have been subpoenaed to testify and also tell the full and unabbreviated truth about the SIEV X disaster.
20 March 2004: Tony Kevin still says: SIEV X: Lies, lies and more lies - We will keep on talking publicly about SIEV X and asking questions about it. In that way, the truth will out, new whistleblowers will come forward over time, and the guilty will finally be held to account. This is a major story that is a long way from over.
20 February 2004: The SIEV X National Memorial Project - The SIEV X National Memorial Project is an Australia-wide Young People's Art Collaboration, to design and build a memorial to the people of SIEV X, on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra, the national capital.
2 December 2003: The Australian Labor Party and SIEV X - An open letter to Labor's new leader Mark Latham, by Tony Kevin, SIEVX whistleblower. "Do you support the series of passed Senate motions calling for a full powers independent judicial inquiry into the sinking of SIEV X ? If you become Prime Minister, will you undertake to implement this Senate demand?"
23 July 2003: John Faulkner, The Aftermath of the CMI Inquiry - "John Howard indicated that he was prepared to spend whatever money it took to deter boatpeople from arriving on the Australian mainland. But have there been other costs? What has been the cost of the Howard Government's disruption programme in Indonesia - not just the financial cost? I intend to keep asking questions until I find out. I intend to keep pressing for an independent judicial inquiry into these very serious matters."
22 May 2003: SIEV X and the DFAT cable: The conspiracy of silence - That such a large number of government officials .... were willing to co-operate in withholding the detailed, highly relevant information in the DFAT cable leaves little doubt that we are still far from the full truth concerning the sinking of SIEVX.
20 May 2003: An interview with 2003 Whistleblower of the Year Tony Kevin - Former Australian diplomat Tony Kevin is convinced the SIEV X asylum-seeker tragedy will become the Howard Government's Watergate. "...the public story was not true, it did not hang together..."
Sydney Morning Herald
August 2, 2004
The Federal Government was involved in the sinking of the SIEV X refugee boat in which 353 people died, claims retired diplomat Tony Kevin.
In February 2002 I suggested the SIEV X boat tragedy was an issue for public inquiry. I asked the Senate committee that had just begun investigating the "children overboard" affair to also examine unexplained, obvious questions about the doomed asylum-seeker boat SIEV X, which sank off Christmas Island in October, 2001.
In March I gave a working name to the nameless boat - SIEV X, or "suspected illegal entry vessel, unknown". My proposed name was at first resisted. The preferred official usage was "the Quassey boat", after Abu Quassey, the people smuggler who had, according to media reports, organised the voyage. My suggested name soon became official because it was short and, I realise now, because it blurred the link between this story and Abu Quassey.
Until we are told the real name of the boat, it will continue to be known as SIEV X. The survivors don't know its name or its owner, though it must have had a registration name in Indonesia. Any name signs must have been erased or removed before the passengers boarded.
The Federal Government never tried to bring Quassey to trial in Australia or Indonesia on a charge of homicide. The only alleged crime by Quassey that belatedly stirred the Australian Federal Police into a little action was the Australian offence of "people smuggling", which is not a crime in Indonesia.
Quassey could have been brought to Australia on homicide charges, under discretionary provisions of the extradition treaty. In February 2003 the Indonesian Justice Minister, Yusril Mahendra, said that he had been ready to hand Quassey over. But it seemed that the AFP was not interested.
There is a wealth of disturbing on-the-record Senate testimony that I believe sustains the following propositions and questions:
As the federal police Commissioner, Mick Keelty, admitted in evidence to the Senate committee, the conduct of Indonesian police people-smuggling disruption teams - who had been recruited, trained, equipped and funded by the AFP, starting in October 2000 - was out of federal police control. Keelty admitted that criminality in Indonesian disruption operations (for example, the deliberate sinking of boats) could not be ruled out.
The AFP had monitored Quassey closely and knew that two of his earlier voyages that reached Australian destinations had been reported by passengers to have been grossly overloaded, ill-equipped and highly unsafe. Yet Quassey, like Enniss, enjoyed high levels of police protection.
Official reports of the boat's exact itinerary, size, structure, fuel capacity, and passenger data were so accurate that the information could not possibly come from talking with survivors, as was officially claimed to the Senate. The detail of this information indicates that it was provided from intelligence sources that had been party to, or closely monitoring, the voyage at every stage.
A tracking device may have been fitted on board SIEV X - it is not clear by which Australian or Indonesian agency - in order to track how far the boat travelled and where and when it sank. The AFP refused to confirm or deny to the Senate whether it was aware of any practice to place tracking devices on people smugglers' boats in Indonesia.
Early reports of radio distress messages sent from SIEV X remain unconfirmed and unexplained.
Many survivors reported the appearance of military-type vessels after the sinking that failed to rescue survivors. It is probable that these were Indonesian police or naval vessels that knew where to go to inspect the disaster scene.
The arrival of a well-organised rescue operation the next day raises more questions. How did two fishing boats miraculously happen on the scene, far out to sea, unless they had been instructed exactly where to look? Why did the main rescue boat then sail 44 survivors back on a long and roundabout two-day voyage to Jakarta when it would have been faster to land them on the nearby south coast of Java? Why were Australian and United Nations authorities so thoroughly prepared, by the time the survivors got back to Jakarta, for a well-organised media management and policy exploitation of this tragedy?
What is the source of an alleged aerial or satellite photograph of SIEV X taken before it sailed?
Two survivors allege that two AFP officials, accompanying Indonesian police and an official from the International Organisation for Migration, showed them the image after their rescue.
My close study of the SIEV X public record leads me to ask whether there was, from the beginning, an undeclared "back channel" of tasking and information management. Did such a channel run, possibly through intermediaries, between Australian security agencies working out of Australia's embassy in Jakarta - the AFP and perhaps the Australian Secret Intelligence Service - and Indonesian police working with or through Quassey? My new analysis of the wealth of early public information about the voyage - which cannot possibly have all come from interviews with survivors - and of sustained official attempts in the Senate committee to conceal the truth, leads towards such a conclusion.
During last year's trial of Quassey in Egypt the AFP quickly inserted itself into the process. It delivered six boxes of documentary evidence to the Egyptian embassy in Canberra, insisting that it be sent to law enforcement authorities prosecuting the trial. Soon after the charge was, according to media reports, reduced from manslaughter to "causing death by mistake" and people smuggling. The Australian embassy in Cairo took a close interest in the trial, which was reportedly held in a closed national security court. There was little reporting of proceedings.
In December Quassey's sentence of seven years' imprisonment was announced - two for people smuggling and five for the accidental manslaughter of 353 people. No details of the evidence presented, or of witnesses, have been made public.
Living through the SIEV X inquiry process for two years has shaken my trust in the integrity of Australia's machinery of government.
As a former senior public servant who worked for 30 years in two sensitive national security departments (Foreign Affairs, and Prime Minister and Cabinet), I had always assumed there was some bedrock of honour that would impose moral limits on what government agencies might do; that there were administrative safeguards and implicit value-based understandings that certain kinds of conduct would be recognised as intolerable and quickly brought to public attention by responsible officials. However, after seeing how the Senate's attempts to uncover the truth about SIEV X were blocked by the Government, that faith has gone. I now think that practically anything is possible at the national security level.
Many senior officials can now be induced or pressured to help sustain a whole-of-government cover-up, as long as they can convince themselves that the issue is about national security.
This is an edited extract from A Certain Maritime Incident - the sinking of SIEV X, by Tony Kevin. Published today by Scribe, RRP $32.95.
Sydney Morning Herald
By Tony Kevin
August 2, 2004
On October 19, 2001, there was a mass drowning in the seas between Indonesia and Australia. A total of 353 people perished when their boat, which later became known as SIEV X, sank in international waters on the way to Christmas Island, where they had been headed to request asylum in Australia as refugees.
The sinking happened at the height of the Australian Government's war against people smugglers, which had begun about two years earlier.
Three days after SIEV X sank 44 survivors were landed in Jakarta on a fishing boat. Overnight, the disaster became front-page international news. Initially, it was not seen particularly as a story with Australian connections.
The Prime Minister, John Howard, said repeatedly that the boat had sunk in Indonesian waters, and that it was not Australia's responsibility. Both claims were accepted at the time. Both were later shown to be untrue. This event had immediate and profound international consequences.
Within two days, Indonesia acceded to Australia's longstanding demand to accept the return of asylum-seeker boats that the Royal Australian Navy towed back to the edge of Indonesian territorial waters. Indonesia also agreed to an international diplomatic conference against people smuggling, held in Bali in February 2002.
Almost immediately the boats stopped coming; the sinking of SIEV X finally deterred the trade in unauthorised asylum-seeker voyages from Indonesia to Australia. Most analysts have concluded that Howard gained re-election because his border-protection war had proved his credentials as a strong national leader.
The Weekend Australian
Edition 1 - All-round Country
SAT 31 JUL 2004, Page 008
By Cameron Stewart
THE people-smuggler who organised the voyage of the ill-fated SIEV X, which sank with the loss of 353 passengers, may have been working as a sting agent of the Indonesian police, according to former Australian diplomat and author Tony Kevin.
Mr Kevin implies that Egyptian-born Abu Quassey, now serving seven years' jail in Egypt for people-smuggling and the accidental manslaughter of the 353 people on the vessel, may have engineered the sinking of SIEV X (Suspected illegal entry vessel X).
'It is likely that alleged people-smuggler Abu Quassey was a police disruption or 'sting' agent,' writes Mr Kevin.
'This is suggested by the sustained high level of Indonesian and Australian protection before, during and after the sinking of SIEV X, as well as by subsequent Australian Federal Police attempts to help minimise his sentence in his 2003 trial in Egypt and render him immune from further prosecution.'
In his new book, A Certain Maritime Incident, Mr Kevin writes that AFP agents in Indonesia worked closely with the Indonesian police to disrupt people-smugglers, but that the details of the disruption operations have remained shrouded in mystery. He suggests that Australia bears some responsibility for the tragedy because of lingering questions about whether SIEV X was sabotaged by Indonesian authorities in order to deter future boats.
'The conduct of Indonesian police people-smuggling disruption teams -- initially set up, trained, equipped and funded by the AFP -- was out of AFP control and criminality in Indonesian disruption operations, for example the deliberate sinking of boats, could not be ruled out,' Mr Kevin writes.
The AFP has strongly denied any wrongdoing in relation to SIEV X and says it never asked the Indonesian police authorities to sabotage boats or do anything illegal in deterring people-smugglers.
It is one of a series of explosive allegations made by Mr Kevin in the book, to be published on Monday.
It is the first book written about the tragedy of SIEV X, which sank en route from Indonesia to Australia in October 2001. The sinking of SIEV X during the 2001 election campaign came at the height of the Government's war on people-smugglers.
Mr Kevin accuses the Government of exploiting the tragedy for political purposes and using national security as an excuse to cover up much of what it knew about the SIEV X.
He claims the Government may have lied, or covered up, key aspects of the SIEV X story, including the location of where the boat sank. Prime Minister John Howard initially said that SIEV X sank in Indonesian waters and was therefore not Australia's responsibility. It was later revealed that the boat sank in the zone patrolled daily by Australia's P3 Orion spy planes and that one had flown over that area shortly after the vessel sank, but that the crew was unaware of the tragedy and did not spot survivors. Only 45 people survived the sinking.
'Most people at the time thought it was just a dreadful accident and accepted it as further proof of the dangers of the people-smuggling trade,' Mr Kevin writes.
He hopes the book will force people to confront what he says are unresolved mysteries surrounding the rickety 19.5m vessel that took 353 men, women and children to their deaths.
[not available online]
Letter to the Editor
Sent 31 July 2004
During the last election campaign two photographs should have captured the hearts and minds of Australians like nothing else ever had but they hardened callous hearts instead.
The first was of Sondos Ismail, Iraqi refugee mother, sobbing unconsolably on the front of every paper in the world with the caption "I have lost my everything". The second was the photograph of her three beautiful Iraqi girls Fatima, Eman and Zahra who had drowned in the great maritime tragedy of the SIEVX, but again they hardened the hearts and minds of Australians.
These iconic photos came just 2 weeks after the photo of the child supposedly thrown into the sea by Iraqi refugee parents and the photo of our PM saying "we don't want people like that in our country, we really don't".
For Sondos, for Fatima, Eman and Zahra and the other 143 children, 142 women and 65 men who died and the hundreds of relatives who mourn still for their dead, we must have a full powers investigation into the SIEVX and I thank Tony Kevin for writing this book.
Too many deaths with too many unanswered questions and too much reluctance on the part of a supposedly humane government and of course the great and tragic irony that they were almost all Iraqi women and children escaping the country we have just invaded.
A Book Review
by Antony Loewenstein
August 30, 2004
When John Howard claimed victory at the 2001 election, it was in no small part due to his tough border protection policies and whipping up of refugee-phobia. In Dark Victory (Allen & Unwin), David Marr and Marian Wilkinson's startling examination of the Tampa crisis, they conclude with the following: "By the time it was all over, Australia had shut its doors to about 2390 boat people. Not many: a couple of full houses at the City Recital Hall where John Howard launched his campaign with a pledge to defend his country's borders 'within the framework of the decency for which Australians have always been renowned'."
Tony Kevin is equally interested in our recent "decency". His focus, however, is the SIEV X, an overloaded boat that sank en route from Indonesia to Australia in October 2001. A total of 353 men, women and children asylum seekers died on that fateful journey and yet we still do not know the full facts behind the sinking. Kevin's book provocatively suggests the Howard Government has resisted calling a judicial enquiry because it was intimately involved in the SIEV X tragedy. Power at any cost, Kevin says, is the current state of the modern Liberal Party under Howard. This 306-page investigative tour de force uncovers many nuggets of information that leave the reader distinctly uncomfortable. Not dissimilar to former intelligence officer Andrew Wilkie's Axis Of Deceit (Black Inc), Kevin fears "there are no longer meaningful checks and balances if a prime minister, the national security ministers and their senior advisers are prepared to manipulate information to cover up politically inconvenient truths".
Our very democracy is in a parlous state, Kevin passionately articulates, and yet both major parties and big media appear content to continue diminishing its checks and balances through outright collusion.
The book asks many more questions than it could ever hope to answer. Initial media reports and Government statements place people-smuggler Abu Quassey as the mastermind behind the SIEV X operation, but Kevin uncovers information that points to possible Australian and Indonesian government involvement.
Asylum seekers were allegedly forced onto the SIEV X at gunpoint in Indonesia, despite the fact that they could see the unseaworthy state of the boat. Were Australian officials aware of this practice, and if so, were they encouraging it to facilitate the slowing down of refugees appearing over the horizon from our northern neighbour?
Amazingly, a former Australian Federal Police undercover informant and people smuggler, Kevin Enniss, has already admitted to sabotaging asylum seekers' boats. In other words, the Howard Government has been paying individuals to engage in the people smuggling trade. As disturbing are Kevin's claims of complicity among the AFP, the Coastguard and the Defence Force. Strong evidence points to an unprecedented politicisation of these departments to the extent that the long-held policy at sea - rescue those in distress - is being ignored. Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty has already admitted that AFP funding was directed at Indonesian people-smuggling disruption teams. Australia needs whistle-blowers like Tony Kevin and Andrew Wilkie. What is required now are politicians and brave media to support them in their quest for the truth.
Antony Loewenstein is a journalist with The Sydney Morning Herald and can be reached at antloew(at)yahoo.com.au