The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, March 12, 2012



For a clear example of the cultural gulf between Indonesia and Australia consider these proceedings in Perth’s District Court.

In late February three Indonesian fishermen were each jailed for five years. Their crime - helping Afghan asylum seekers get to Australia.

They weren’t the Mt Bigs who do secret business in Indonesian shopping malls, seemingly immune, selling high-price illegal passages to desperate people.

The crew are the gullible victims. While they’re behind bars the Afghans they helped now walk Perth’s streets as free men. In return they give evidence in court against the Indonesians.

Day One in courtroom 7.1. X Riyan and X Hadi shuffle into the dock, confused and chilled, for the air conditioning is like the justice system - icily efficient. Riyan, 28, wears a blue top, Hadi, age unknown, an oversize fleecy white and black hoodie, hiding his hands in the long sleeves. Through their interpreters they plead ‘not guilty’.

Judge Richard Keen politely asks them to sit and the trial gets underway. Officially it’s called The Queen v X Riyan and X Hadi; Australia’s legal system can’t cope with one-name people.

Facing them across the wide and almost empty court (an Indonesian diplomat occasionally attends) sits the randomly selected jury of 12 citizens. Being judged by your peers is an ancient principle of imported British justice.

But peers they are not; the comprehension gap between the eight men and four women of Western Australia’s booming capital and the poor knockabout fishers of the Archipelago is as wide as the Arafura Sea.

According to Hadi his journey started in May 2010 when he crewed a boat carrying coconuts to Flores. The job done, he thought they were heading back to Batam.

Instead the boat went to Probolinggo on East Java’s north coast. Offshore and at night it collected 54 Afghan men and headed west, then south. On 3 June they were stopped by the Australian naval patrol boat HMAS Maryborough.

The issue of asylum seekers being trafficked by Indonesians is a weeping sore festering relations between the two countries. There’s little public sympathy on either side. Last year 168 Indonesian crew illegally brought 4,565 people on 69 boats– the previous year the numbers were almost double.

Skipper Mahmud Rizalhad already pleaded guilty. So for nine days two prosecutors, two defence lawyers, plus their interpreters, all paid by the Australian taxpayer, tread a long and tedious road of detailed evidence and ponderous procedure.

It’s obvious the two men have credibility problems. They tell different stories. To Western ears some elements sound fantastic

Riyan says he was picked up in Jakarta and offered Rp 15 million (AUD $1,500) to help take the boat to Probolinggo for sale. He claims ignorance of people smuggling.

Prosecutor Anthony Eyers makes much of the fact that Riyan was earning only Rp 25,000 (AUD $2.50) a day fishing. So he surely knew something illegal was planned when 600 days income was proposed by an unnamed ‘friend’ for four days work.

Hadi says he didn’t get paid and hadn’t negotiated a salary. Mr Eyers, and presumably the jury, think this incredible. Hadi protests that Indonesian lads don’t question or quibble.

He also says he knew nothing about destination Australia. But the boat was carrying ample water and food along with lifejackets and mattresses for 57, not three.

Even if he hadn’t noticed the gear and supplies why didn’t Hadi jump up,when the Afghans clambered aboard like phantoms in the darkness, shouting: ‘Hey boss, this isn’t right – I want out!’

He tells the court he was seasick at the time. He didn’t add that even if he’d been fit and brave it probably wouldn’t have made any difference.

Hadi might have avoided court if he’d held to earlier claims to be under 18. If proven he’d have been flownback to his Mum in Solo.

“We’re dealing here with poor, almost illiterate village people,” said Indonesia Institute president Ross Taylor outside the court. “They have no understanding of the risks and consequences.

“Australia is running a deterrent policy and the kids are the victims. The real people smugglers exploit Australia’s decency and commitment to human rights – and stay in Jakarta.”

At the Indonesian Consulate-General office Chancery head Syahri Sakidin said Hadi tired of constant questions about his age. “In prison he gets good food, high quality medical care, and earns AUD $30 a week doing kitchen chores,” he said

Hadi and Riyan are with other Indonesians and apparently get on well with staff and prisoners. Indonesian is now the most common foreign language in WA jails.

“This issue is like a sieve. Block one hole and the water just comes out another. They cannot put a deterrent in place that will actually deter,” said activist Victoria Martin-Iverson of the Refugee Rights Action Network outside the court.

“Before we got involved they couldn’t contact their families, and Indonesian authorities didn’t know of their existence. Many are depressed and fearful.”

Not all, according to Mr Sakidin. “Two boys I took home thought they’d had a kind of heroic adventure, like Indiana Jones. They were treated like returning tourists while we’re telling others not to go.

“The people smuggling mafia are using poor fishermen like marine ojek (motorcycle taxis). You have to understand the irony. It’s shameful they’re getting money that way but you have to see it through their eyes.

“It’s irritating international relations. We should be spending our time discussing bigger issues.”

When sentencing Riyan and Hadi to the mandatory minimum period, Judge Keen said jailing the men would “bring home the message” that Australia treats people smuggling seriously. Whether anyone in the Archipelago is listening is another matter.

The sentences were back dated and parole allowed after three years. So the men may be deported mid 2013 if they behave.

During the trial six more boats carrying asylum seekers were caught. Each had two or three Indonesian crew. There’ll be plenty of business ahead for Australia’s courts

(First published in The Jakarta Post 10 March 2010)


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