The coroner's inquest into the fire and explosion on board the SIEV 36 (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel 36) last April that led to the death of five Afghan refugees and 51 others, including navy personnel, being injured in an explosion and subsequent fire has finally began on 25 January. The incident involving the boat, which was carrying 47 Afghans and 2 Indonesian crew members when it was intercepted by an Australian patrol boat HMAS Albany off the Ashmore Reef, has become a cause célèbre after Navy personnel claimed that the Afghans had deliberately set fire to the boat, and allegations that the navy had in turn beaten survivors from the boat who tried to climb on board their vessels when they were trying to rescue their own personnel were revealed.
The inquest follows a lengthy police investigation and an internal Defence inquiry, the full findings of which have not been made public. On its first day, Counsel assisting the coroner, Stephen Walsh, QC, told the inquest Counsel assisting the coroner, Stephen Walsh, QC, laid out the events that led to the explosion, caused by petrol leaking from a 'sabotaged' engine into the boat's bilge, that killed Mohammad Hassan Ayubi, Muzafar Ali Sefarli, Mohammed Amen Zamen, Awar Nader and Baquer Husani. All the surviving Afghans were eventually granted protection visas and, despite opposition calls to charge at least some of them with murder, no one currently faces legal sanction.
Walsh said that the SIEV 36's passengers eventually became extremely agitated when one of them found a warning notice that had been issued to the boat’s crew stating: “You should now consider immediately returning to Indonesia with your passengers and not enter Australian territory.” It was confirmed in later evidence that the navy crew had in fact been ordered not to mention that the refugees were being towed back to Indonesia. The boat’s occupants then became extremely distressed and began to cry “No Indonesia, no Indonesia!”. During the ensuing disturbance Navy personnel claim they saw someone with a lighter near the bilge shortly before the explosion, which blew most of the passengers and navy boarding party into the sea.
Walsh also revealed some of the contents of the internal Defence inquiry, which found that the navy were poorly trained, relied on an inappropriate training manual dating back to 1920. There were also ''inconsistencies and gaps in the relevant policies and procedures'' relating to boarding boats that enter Australian territory illegally. The refugees had not been provided with life jackets that could have saved their lives. “Whilst life jackets for all 49 passengers and crew had been transferred to the SIEV 36, they were stowed on the top of the cabin in large bags that did not allow them to be readily accessed."
In subsequent days, one navy sailor, Able Seaman Adrian Medbury, on board one of the rigid sided rescue boats admitted verbally abusing an asylum-seeker but testified he is "not aware" of kicking him in the head as he tried to board a rescue craft. This incident occurred as he tried to rescue air force medic, Corporal Sharon Jager, who had been part of the boarding team blown into the water. She later testified that he shouted ''Fuck off, get the fuck off her'' to two asylum seekers beside her in the water as he dragged her into the vessel. "I saw him raise one of his feet … He kicked the asylum seekers. From what I saw it was the head." The preferential rescue of navy personnel is backed up their own video footage, which has been suppressed by the Australian government and is still being withheld from the public by the coroner, who claims it could prejudice witnesses. Those that have seen it state that it shows drowning refugees being pushed and kicked off rescue craft, as well as of the events leading up to the explosion
Stephen Walsh in his evidence on the first day stated that this was the official policy of the Australian Defence Force, that personnel be saved before civilians. As a result, it was entirely possible that some asylum seekers had died because of that policy. However, Chief Petty Officer Dean Faunt, the officer in charge of the SIEV 36 boarding party, gave evidence that his training did not require armed forces members to be rescued first, contradicting the Defence department statement.
Other interesting evidence to come out is the fact that Lieutenant Commander Brett Westcott, who was in charge of HMAS Childers, which went to assist the Albany was relieved of his position after complaining that his own senior officers and the Federal Government had handled the incident badly, failing in the end to make any meaningful decision. In police interviews he he is also understood to have claimed that the asylum seekers on the SIEV 36 were dehydrated, weak and confused after being towed in endless circles off Ashmore Reef, with no information as to what was to happen to them. He was also of the opinion that the Childers and its sister vessel, the HMAS Albany, should have taken the asylum seekers to Christmas Island. However, the Darwin-based northern command centre, Norcom, had no clear idea of what was to be done about the asylum seekers and instructed the patrol boats to keep them under control until the larger HMAS Tobruk (then in Darwin undergoing repairs) could reach the scene.
On 1 February Leading Seaman Paul Heatherington told of how he defied orders to stay away from the burning SIEV 36 because there were drowning asylum-seekers clinging to the wreckage that needed rescuing. He claimed that crew aboard the nearby HMAS Childers give orders by loudhailer telling "us to get away from the SIEV." Undoubtedly his actions saved a number of lives that otherwise would have been lost if he had followed orders.
No doubt in coming days more revealing evidence will come out that will throw additional light on something that could be said to resemble a Gilbert and Sullivan, if it weren't for the fact that 5 people dies because of the Navy's ineptitude.