July 2012

The Nation Reviewed

All at Sea

By Sian Powell
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
A People-smuggling Trial

A semi-literate Indonesian hired hand started thumbing the tears from his cheeks in the dock of courtroom LG2 in Sydney’s Downing Centre last April. He faced a roomful of imposing figures: two defence barristers and a crown prosecutor in black gowns, a judge resplendent in black, scarlet and lilac, an Australian Federal Police officer, two corrective services officers, and two rows of serious jurors, with notes and papers in front of them – the machinery of the NSW District Court at work, notionally dispensing justice to all.

Karyanto bin Suwarno, a slight man in his thirties with high cheekbones, dark skin and a mop of thick black hair, seemed far younger. He hadn’t seen his wife and 14-year-old daughter since October 2010, when he left home to work on a boat. He had yet to see his son, born in early 2011. So when he was presented with a sheaf of large colour photographs of his house and family, the court officer tactfully put a box of tissues within reach.

Bin Suwarno wore the same clothes in the dock, day after day: a plain dark-green sweater, a pair of khakis and unlaced canvas sneakers. Appearing to listen carefully to the questions put to him, his answers were often repetitious and occasionally shrill as he tried to get his point across, once swearing by the prophet Mohammed.

He’d already been in custody for nearly 18 months, first in a detention centre in Darwin and then in Sydney’s notorious Long Bay jail. As an “unlawful non-citizen”, bin Suwarno had no right to bail. Though a first-time offender, he faced a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison, with a non-parole period of three years, for the crime of helping convey 62 asylum seekers to Christmas Island.

Bin Suwarno told the court that he and his family lived in a small house near a well, in Java. He worked as a fisherman and sometimes he helped his wife harvest rice, and between them they could earn between about 175,000 and 455,000 Indonesian rupiah ($19 and $50) a day. Some weeks, though, depending on the catch, he earned nothing.

He had been to school for about two years, he explained, and he knew how to count and write his name. He’d never left Javanese waters before, nor heard of Christmas Island. He didn’t have a passport and didn’t know anyone who did. He had no idea a visa was required to travel to another country, nor that he’d been committing a crime when he worked on the boat headed to Christmas Island. He was simply following the instructions of a distant relative, whom he called ‘Uncle’. This man, Timin bin Sukarja, on trial with bin Suwarno, was a stocky older man with greying hair and, rarely, a swift, sweet smile. Bin Sukarja, who told the court he’d had no schooling at all, seemed as bewildered by the lengthy court proceedings as his co-accused. Both Indonesians would stand almost to attention every time the jurors entered or left the courtroom.

Since September 2008, some 600 people – nearly all Indonesians, and many of them fishermen – have been charged with people-smuggling offences. More than 250 crew and just five organisers have been convicted and jailed, mostly for at least three years. The mandatory punishment requirement leaves judges with no discretion to impose a lesser sentence to take into account mitigating factors.

Many judges privately rail against the sentencing regime. Humanitarian concerns aside, the cost of arresting and imprisoning the boat crews is huge: Queensland’s Attorney-General, Jarrod Bleijie, recently estimated that the trial and custody of people smugglers ran to half a million dollars each. But people smuggling is an incendiary issue in Australia, and politicians of all stripes have tried to win the public’s confidence with their hardline tactics to halt the boats crammed full of Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians and others. In 2009 Kevin Rudd, then prime minister, called people smugglers the “absolute scum of the earth” and the “vilest form of human life”.

It could be, though, that the mood in Australia is beginning to change. The Law Council of Australia’s Phillip Boulton told a Senate committee in March that the number of acquittals in people-smuggling cases had been steadily rising over the past year or so because jurors sometimes regard the laws as “fundamentally unfair”. “There is more than half a suspicion that some sympathy is being shown to these people once the jurors realise how insignificant a role they play and [that] they actually really do not understand the full extent of the criminality,” he said.

But could hired hands like bin Suwarno really have expected simply to off-load their passengers on an island and duck back to Java in a matter of days? In bin Suwarno’s case, the crown prosecutor pointed out that the fisherman might have suspected something was amiss when he was taken to a remote beach in the middle of the night, or when he found the passengers couldn’t speak Indonesian and were carrying large bags. Had he really not known why he was asked to throw the GPS navigation device into the sea as soon as Christmas Island was sighted on the horizon after a rough three-day voyage?

The jurors in courtroom LG2 didn’t get the chance to decide whether he knew what he was doing was illegal, or whether – even if he did – he deserved a prison term of at least three years. On day 15 of the proceedings, Judge Michael King decided the Indonesian translator used by the court had made a number of significant errors, including regularly interpreting tidak – ‘no’ in Indonesian – as  ‘I wouldn’t know’ or, perhaps, as ‘I wouldn’t, no’. He discharged the jury and aborted the trial.

Bin Suwarno and his co-accused were sent back to jail. A new trial is scheduled to begin on 23 July, 21 months after the men were first locked up.

Sian Powell
Sian Powell is a former Jakarta correspondent for the Australian. She is now a freelance journalist, based in Hong Kong.

From the front page

cartoon:In light of recent events

In light of recent events

Who’s preferencing whom?

Detail of cover of Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

Ghost notes: Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

A virtuoso memoir of music and trauma, and his experiences as a child prodigy, from the acclaimed Australian pianist

Image of Steve Toltz

The quip and the dead: Steve Toltz’s ‘Here Goes Nothing’

A bleakly satirical look at death and the afterlife from the wisecracking author of ‘A Fraction of the Whole’

Composite image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese speaking during the first leaders’ debate on April 20, 2022. Image © Jason Edwards / AAP Images

Election special: Who should you vote for?

Undecided about who to vote for in the upcoming federal election? Take our quiz to find out your least-worst option!

In This Issue

Emily Perkins. © Jessie Casson

Out of Auckland

Emily Perkins’ 'The Forrests'

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Four Coroners

The Last Azaria Chamberlain Inquest

Berlinde de Bruyckere. © Eamon Gallagher

In the Flesh

Berlinde De Bruyckere

Schoolies in a Surfers Paradise polling booth at the 2007 federal election. © Fiona Hamilton / Newspix

Comment: Australian Democracy and the Right to Party


More in The Nation Reviewed

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

OnlyFans and the adults in the room

The emerging OnlyFans community offering training and support to adult-content creators

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

ANAM Set and music in lockdown

The project that commissioned 67 Australian composers to write for each of Australian National Academy of Music’s musicians in lockdown

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Where did all the bogongs go?

The drastic decline of the bogong moth could have disastrous ecological consequences

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Flooding back

Watching the Brisbane River swell, once more, to a destructive force


Online exclusives

Composite image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese speaking during the first leaders’ debate on April 20, 2022. Image © Jason Edwards / AAP Images

Election special: Who should you vote for?

Undecided about who to vote for in the upcoming federal election? Take our quiz to find out your least-worst option!

Image of the Stone of Remembrance at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Remembrance or forgetting?

The Australian War Memorial and the Great Australian Silence

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, Labor MP Emma McBride and shadow housing minister Jason Clare after meeting with young renter Lydia Pulley during a visit to her home in Gosford on May 3, 2022. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Property damage

What will it take for Australia to fix the affordable housing crisis?

Image of Daniel Johns. Image © Luke Eblen

Present indicative: Daniel Johns’ ‘FutureNever’

The former Silverchair frontman’s second solo album lacks cohesion, but affords him space to excavate his past