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Asylum seekers take revenge with AFP help

Dangerous journey: Being duped by people smugglers is one of the risks asylum seekers face.

Dangerous journey: Being duped by people smugglers is one of the risks asylum seekers face.

People smugglers like to dismiss their customers as "goats". But after one rickety wooden boat sank off the coast of Java on July 23, killing 20 or more asylum seekers, the goats turned on suspected smugglers and bit back.

On August 19, almost a month after the fatal sinking, news emerged that three people had been arrested by the Indonesian National Police for people-smuggling. What has not been revealed until now is that the arrest only took place after a posse of asylum seekers raided the home of the alleged smuggling kingpin one night, locked him inside for 24 hours and insisted the police make an arrest.

They were only just in time. The suspected smuggler, an Iraqi named Abu Yunus, had an international air ticket booked for the following morning. Now both he and his Sri Lankan counterpart, Sinniah "Syams" Vamadevan, are locked safely away in police cells as investigations continue.

Fairfax Media can also reveal for the first time the integral role that the Australian Federal Police played in the operation.

To the more than 200 people who paid $US5500 each to sail from Java to Christmas Island on July 22, it quickly became clear the venture was a tragic joke. The little wooden boat leaked even in the shallows and the water pump simply would not start.

"We tried to empty the water by hand but after about four hours we realised we couldn't continue," passenger Ahmad Khoozestani said. "But the captain didn't pay attention. Then suddenly the engine stopped. We were about three kilometres from the beach.

"The captain knew that if the police came there would be great trouble, so his staff began making a hole on the boat with a big piece of iron. Then a small boat came and the captain and his crew ran away.

"After about three minutes the boat sank."

It was 5pm. For hours the terrified passengers clung to debris until, at 3am, a night rescue began.

Four Iranians and perhaps 16 Sri Lankans died that night.

For many of those who survived, the dream of a new life in Australia had nearly killed them and they had been betrayed by the men they had trusted to convey them. So when an Australian Federal Police officer, who cannot be named, approached with a translator, they spoke freely.

When the Australian officer had finished listening, he left his phone number. The asylum seekers returned to the town of Cisarua, in West Java, where refugees of all nationalities live while waiting for a boat.

Their fury had not abated.

One of them, Javad Asakareh, wanted to act. He went to see a man called Naseem, an Iranian who had acted as a conduit and organiser for the smuggler. Naseem, too, was angry, Javad said. He had lost friends when the boat sank.

They rounded up a group of eight men, and, guided by Naseem, went to the house of Abu Yunus in Cisarua at 7.30pm one night in early August. They barged in and locked the doors behind them.

"We arrested him," says Ashkan Yusuf, who was one of the eight. "Abu Yunus lived with his Indonesian wife and three children . . . He told us he would get back our money, but secretly we called [the AFP officer]."

Back in AFP headquarters, news of the citizen's arrest hit like a bombshell.

The Australians could not act directly because they have no jurisdiction in Indonesia, so they called the local police. But the sinking had happened in one jurisdiction, the original interviews in a second. The apparent citizen's arrest was unfolding in a third police district and it took time to explain to the local officers in Cisarua what was going on.

As those briefings continued, the Australians kept in contact with the men in Abu Yunus's house, worried about what the eight angry Iranians might do.

"The line between citizen's arrest and kidnap is a fine one," one observer noted.

Yunus tried to talk his way out of trouble. He came up with a refund of $US2000 for each of the Iranian passengers.

Then he boasted that he could pay off the Indonesian police.

He also revealed he had bought a ticket to Malaysia, and had planned to flee the morning after his former customers had arrived at his house. His ultimate destination was Canada.

Finally, at 8pm the following night, the Indonesian police came and made the arrest. Under questioning, Yunus led them to the Sri Lankan smuggling suspect, Sinniah "Syams" Vamadevan.

They began a stake-out. The Australian Federal Police once again offered support.

"We helped them set up an operation," said the AFP commander in Jakarta, Chris Sheehan said. "We funded things like accommodation, fuel, meals for the [Indonesian] officers who had to deploy into the field."

After an operation lasting several days, evidence from the local community ultimately gave the Indonesian police enough information to arrest the Sri Lankan. Naseem, too, was swept up in the police net as a people smuggler and remains in custody, though his friends Javad and Ashkan insist he is innocent and was as "determined to catch Abu Yunus" as they were. They say Naseem received no money from the venture – he only acted as the go-between for customers and agent.

For the police, this was anything but a typical operation, but Mr Sheehan says is emblematic of the increasingly close co-operation between Indonesian and Australian police who are working to combat people smuggling.

The surviving asylum seekers have lost the bulk of their money and many have been sent to an immigration detention in the North Sumatran capital of Medan. They are aggrieved that nobody seems willing or able to help them.

"This area we are held is not for people – it's not even for animals," an Iranian woman, Sharifa, said by phone from Medan.

"There is no water, no conditions, not anything; no place to sleep. We sleep on the tiles. We spoke to police, the newspapers, but not anybody help us.

"My country is very bad; but this country is bad also."

with Bizhan Jahangir

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