Smuggler claims police protection

By Greg Ansley

Secret taping reveals how boats are escorted away from Indonesia.

A secretly-filmed video has shed new light on how people smugglers ply their trade. This boat load of Vietnamese boat people arrived on Christmas Island in April this year. Photo / AP
A secretly-filmed video has shed new light on how people smugglers ply their trade. This boat load of Vietnamese boat people arrived on Christmas Island in April this year. Photo / AP

A secretly-filmed video has recorded a people smuggler admitting to Indonesian police protection of the trade in boat people sailing to Australia, and of his involvement in the drowning of more than 90 asylum seekers last year.

The video, showing negotiations between former policeman Freddy Ambon and prospective clients he referred to as "goats", aired as an inquest into the tragedy began in Western Australia.

It also comes as Prime Minister Julia Gillard - providing she is still in office - prepares for talks in Jakarta with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on asylum seekers in Jakarta next week.

The latest allegations add to the sensitivity of the issue in relations with Indonesia, and to pressure within Australia as asylum seekers become a key battleground for the September 14 election.

In the past year more than 24,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Australian waters aboard often frail and overloaded boats, pushing the capacity of detention centres to their limits.

The death toll has been rising. Since more than 100 passengers were presumed dead after the sinking of a boat off Christmas Island in June last year, others have drowned in a number of incidents - most recently the loss of 55 lives this month.

Research by Australian National University Emeritus Fellow Tony Kevin has reported more than 20 sinkings in the past four years, with an estimated 860 confirmed or probable deaths.

A joint investigation by ABC News and Fairfax has added grim new insights into the trade, filmed by an Afghan asylum seeker using the alias Abbas when he posed as a broker for a fictitious group of clients during meetings with Ambon in Jakarta last month.

Abbas told the investigating journalists he wanted to expose the trade after losing two brothers on a voyage to Australia.

On the video Ambon claims to be employed on a wage as the operations manager of a syndicate run by a Pakistani smuggler known as Billu - real name Javed Mehmud Bhat - who relied on his expertise.

"He's the boss, he's the owner, and I was the one who ran the business," Ambon tells Abbas. "Without me he could do nothing."

Ambon buys his boats in Jakarta, has the engines overhauled and fuelled, and sailed to a beach near Pandeglang in West Java to pick up clients paying up to A$6000 ($7200) each for the voyage to Christmas Island.

"I will take care of the boat, the engine, get it overhauled everything, get the fuel loaded, okay, the supplies loaded, okay then the goats go. That's it," he says on the video.

Police do not interfere. Ambon says they escort the boats.

"I'm a former policeman, this is just for you to know. But it means there is no problem, bro. There is no problem, no problem, no problem. The passengers will get through."

The ABC said another people smuggling source had said that police would escort asylum seekers to the coast for a bribe of about A$7000, and for a further A$10,000 they would ensure a clear exit.

Indonesian police have denied the claims, but the head of the nation's smuggling task force, Brigadier General Herry Pratowo, said he would make internal inquiries.

Ambon also admitted involvement in last year's boat tragedy, but said the blame lay with a Pakistani business partner who overloaded the vessel.

"It was overloaded, so full," Ambon says. "I told him, 'don't put more passengers on', but he insisted. So it wasn't my fault. I did no wrong.

"I've never done that, bro. I always get them through. They get through, get through all the time."

The video will add to Australians' dubious view of their closest neighbour.

The latest Lowy Institute annual poll says that most do not believe Indonesia helps Australia combat people smuggling.

- NZ Herald

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