By Ross Taylor
It hardly made any news.
An Indonesian ‘people smuggler’ last week successfully appealed to the full bench of the Australian Federal Court to have his conviction eventually quashed.
This particular people smuggler served two years in a maximum security prison in Perth (Hakea Prison) and Albany for smuggling asylum seekers from Indonesia to Christmas Island in 2010.
He has told stories of how he was denied the services of an interpreter, how he was stripped naked on numerous occasions, being chained by his hands and feet and being locked-down from 7am until 7pm on most nights.
This prisoner, at the time the offence occurred, was 13 years of age.
Ali Yasmin, now 19 years of age, was one of some 50 children recruited by people smuggling syndicates in Indonesia to work on boats as deck and kitchen hands at the peak of the asylum seeker debacle.
These children, many of whom were pre-pubescent, were from remote and very poor villages in the east of the sprawling archipelago to our north, with their families being offered up to $200.00 for the services of their sons for ostensibly two weeks work on board a fishing boat.
In an area where many people live on $70.00 per month, the offer was highly attractive, given that many of these kids worked on boats routinely.
The then Labor Government, desperate to be tough on people smugglers, had introduced mandatory sentencing for anyone carrying or assisting in the transport of asylum seekers from Indonesia to Australia. They did not intend to catch young children in this net, but that’s what can happen when poorly thought-out legislation is enacted by a government under enormous political pressure.
Ali Yasmin, like a number of his friends, was convicted and sentenced to jail in an adult maximum security prison here in WA. This was despite a doctor certifying that he was pre-pubescent and documents being provided to confirm the age of this young boy.
To think that a country such as Australia could have incarcerated children in this way – alongside drug dealers, paedophiles and bank robbers – and subject them to strip searches, lock downs and no access to their families back in Indonesia, is almost unthinkable for a nation that prides itself as being decent, caring and respectful of human rights.
It was only through the Indonesia Institute, several leading media groups (including The West Australian) and human rights advocates, was the then Gillard Government forced to release these children and send them back to where they rightfully belonged: with their parents.
Ali Yasmin, being represented by human rights lawyers, last week won a ruling that now forces the Australian Attorney-General, George Brandos, to exercise his ‘legal duty’ to refer the boys appeal to the WA Court of Appeal where the team is hopeful the conviction will be quashed.
That a nation such as Australia knowingly allowed foreign children to be locked-up for years with hardened adult criminals leaves a stain on all of us. But to now force children like Yasmin to ‘fight’ in the courts to have his conviction overturned is appalling.
Our new PM, Malcolm Turnbull, should move immediately to have all the convictions of these children quashed, and to also make a formal apology on behalf of Australia to their families for the inhuman treatment of children who should never have been placed in our maximum security prisons in the first place.
Ross Taylor AM is the President of the WA-based Indonesia Institute (Inc)