By: Agence France-Presse
June 17, 2015 11:44 AM
A boat carrying asylum seekers off Australia (AFP file)
SYDNEY, Australia — Indonesian police insist Australian authorities paid the crew of a people-smuggling boat US$31,000 to turn back, displaying thousands of US dollars as proof, reports said Wednesday.
West Timor police also claim that the 65 asylum-seekers and six Indonesian crew were placed onto two wooden boats for the return trip, with one running out of fuel and the other crashing on a reef before making land.
“We have given you the evidence,” General Endang Sunjaya told the Sydney Morning Herald, which ran a front page image of him displaying a photograph of US$100 notes.
“It’s now up to you and other organizations to demand an answer from the Australian government.”
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is facing intense pressure over the alleged payments, which he has refused to confirm or deny, saying he does not comment on operational matters.
Senior government minister Scott Morrison said he did not feel the need to respond to the allegations.
“We’ve always done things lawfully and we will continue to do that,” the former immigration minister said.
But Indonesia has pushed for answers, with Vice President Jusuf Kalla warning Monday that paying people-smugglers would amount to “bribery.”
Reports on Wednesday said that the people-smuggling boat at the center of the allegations left West Java for New Zealand in early May carrying 65 mostly Sri Lankan asylum-seekers.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation said according to the Indonesian police’s initial findings, the boat was intercepted twice by Australian authorities.
The first time they were warned not to cross into Australian waters but were allowed to continue on their way.
The second time they were detained, with the Indonesian captain Yohanis Humiang allegedly taken onboard an Australian Customs ship and told his boat was not in good enough condition to reach New Zealand.
According to the police findings, a deal was then struck under which the asylum-seeker boat would return to Indonesia, with the captain paid US$6,000 and the five crew US$5,000 each, the ABC said.
After being anchored at Australia’s Ashmore Reef for two days, the 65 asylum-seekers were allegedly placed in two other wooden boats along with three Indonesian crew in each, life-jackets, food, a map and directions to Indonesia’s Rote Island, the ABC said.
But approaching the island, about eight hours away, one boat ran out of fuel — so all 71 people ended up on the other vessel, which later ran aground near the island off West Timor.
Villagers helped rescue the asylum-seekers and notified the Indonesian police, leading to the arrest of the six crew who remain in custody after questioning, reports said.
“We believe the payments happened,” Endang told the Herald. “They all said the same thing: they were paid by Australian officials to return to Indonesia.”