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Australian navy personnel inflicted burns on a group of African asylum seekers this month by making them hold hot parts of their boat's engine, the asylum seekers and local Indonesian police chief, Hidayat, have claimed.
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Navy accused of asylum seeker abuse
RAW VISION: an asylum seeker shows the burns on his hands, claiming that they were caused by Australian Navy personnel. Courtesy ABC News
Pictures of the injured people and video footage of them being treated by Indonesian doctors have emerged two weeks after it was first reported that the asylum boat had been towed from near Darwin to Rote Island, off West Timor.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison told 6PR radio on Wednesday that it was "a pretty poor effort" for the ABC to report the asylum seekers' claims of receiving burns because of treatment by the Australian navy.
Despite video footage of the asylum seekers showing their burns, Mr Morrison said the claims were "unfounded, unsubstantiated, outrageous allegations against our navy and our customs and border protection service".
"I mean, there is [sic] been no police investigation in Indonesia," Mr Morrison added.
"People who get on boats have an incentive ... in running stories to try and discredit and undermine the strong border protection policies that we're running in Australia.
Mr Morrison was later asked during a press conference in Sydney whether an independent investigation should be conducted into the claims that Australian navy personnel inflicted burns on asylum seekers.
Mr Morrison avoided the question and rejected the mistreatment claims. But the minister has yet to provide evidence that an investigation has been conducted.
"The Australian government is not going to put up with people sledging the Australian navy," Mr Morrison said.
"I've been given assurances about [the navy's] conduct and I believe those assurances because I believe in those individuals."
Photographs, obtained by Fairfax Media, show at least one man with burns on his hands, and others with bruising on their leg and a foot injury.
Abdullah Ahmed from Eritrea was allegedly kicked on the left thigh, and Bashka Ibrahim Nooris and Ahmed Ali Noor, from Somalia, said they had been made to put their hands on the boat's muffler, which was hot.
Rote police chief Hidayat said the asylum seekers had also made the allegations of torture to him.
"There were asylum seekers who claimed they were tortured; we did see burn injuries on their palm. It seems they were told to hold part of the boat engines; it was hot," he said.
The allegations relate to a boat that sailed from Kupang, in West Timor, bound for Darwin in late December.
Yousif Fasher, one of the passengers, said at the time the boat had reached a small island near Darwin before the engine broke down and they called the United Nations for help.
Two Australian navy ships, HMAS Parramatta and HMAS Glenelg, had come to take them from the island and had put them on board the navy vessels, where, said Yousif, they were beaten.
He said at the time the asylum seekers had been misled, and told they were being taken to Christmas Island, but they were in fact being returned to Rote Island, where they were left early one morning to find their way back to shore.
Asked on Wednesday about the government denials that anybody had been mistreated, Yousif responded: ''No, no, they are lying, 100 per cent.''
He said his friends' hands were burnt after a dispute with navy personnel about going to the toilet.
"We have a three young people, the army does not allow us to go to the toilet, only one time per day.
"And they refused, they [were] insisting to go to the toilet. On the day four [out of five days during which they were being towed back to Indonesia] they asked to go to the toilet, and they [navy] put their hands on the edges of the engine ... the pipe of the smoke out.
"They put their hands there by the force, so the other people are afraid, so that no-one will go to the toilet ... [it was] punishment and so people are afraid."
The news comes as Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Australia would "continue to do what we are entitled to do to secure our borders", despite Indonesia's strong objections.
"[Indonesia] President [Susilo Bambang] Yudhoyono, of all people ought to understand, does understand, just how seriously countries take their sovereignty," he told reporters at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
This week the chief of the navy, Vice-Admiral Ray Griggs, expressed "deep concern" over the media's lack of respect for naval officers in reporting allegations that warning shots were fired during a boat turn-back, or that navy personnel swore at asylum seekers.
When allegations of beating and torture first emerged, on January 8, the chief of the Defence Force, David Hurley, defended his acting head of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, Roman Quaedvlieg, and said people under that command "conduct themselves with the highest level of integrity, professionalism, dedication and respect".
International lobby group Human Rights Watch also included Australia for the first time in its annual "World Report" and made swingeing criticisms of its stance on asylum seekers.
"Australia has damaged its record and its potential to be a regional human rights leader by persistently undercutting refugee protections," according to the report, released on Wednesday.
"In 2013, successive Australian governments continued to engage in scaremongering politics at the expense of the rights of asylum seekers and refugees."
The Australia chapter particularly criticised a deal last November, under which Mr Abbott gave two patrol boats to Sri Lanka to combat people smuggling. His desire to stop the boats had led him to rationalise torture, Human Rights Watch said.
"Most egregiously, Abbott, addressing allegations of torture by Sri Lankan security forces, defended the Sri Lankan government, saying, 'We accept that sometimes, in difficult circumstances, difficult things happen.'
"This rationalisation of torture, which was endemic during the war years and continues to be a serious problem in Sri Lanka today, seems to have been motivated in part by the goal of enlisting Sri Lanka's support in preventing asylum seekers from leaving Sri Lanka for Australia."