After grilling tight-lipped border force officials for more than an hour, a Senate committee is no closer to confirming whether Australian officials bribed the Indonesian crew of a turned-back asylum-seeker boat.
A Senate inquiry is attempting to get to the bottom of claims that $US5000 was paid to each of the boat’s six crew in May last year.
The boat was bound for New Zealand when it was intercepted by an Australian border vessel.
Operation Sovereign Borders commander Andrew Bottrell and immigration department secretary Michael Pezzullo cited national security, concern about people smugglers knowing operational tactics and a ministerial claim for public immunity to justify not answering questions about the alleged bribes.
“We have no comment on that,” Mr Pezzullo told a hearing of the inquiry in Canberra on Friday.
Though not in a position to confirm or deny intelligence matters, he maintained that officials had acted within Australian and international law.
Labor Senator Katy Gallagher suggested the money “magically appeared” at sea and lamented the difficulty in holding the government to account because of secrecy over operations.
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the money had to come from somewhere because “there were no floating ATMs on the high sea”.
Though senators hit a brick wall of bureaucratic obfuscation, the hearing did turn up some new details about what happened at sea.
General Bottrell insisted there was a request from the vessel master for assistance and, for the first time, he confirmed passengers had been held overnight on the deck of their boat.
They wore life jackets because the seas were too rough to extract them.
“It was for a very real and practical reason,” he said of keeping them on the deck.
At the time there were winds of up to 21 knots and waves up to two metres.
Australian personnel were on board the boat and some were below the deck trying to maintain the engine, General Bottrell said, adding safety of life was their first concern.
He insisted passengers were later transferred on to other vessels because they were no longer safe.
Earlier Amnesty International, which conducted an investigation and interviewed passengers and crew in Indonesia, provided contrary evidence.
The boat was not in distress when it was intercepted and Australian officials had endangered lives, the human rights organisation claimed.
Asylum seekers made allegations of ill treatment, it said.
The men had been forced to stay outside overnight in heavy rain under armed guard and later 50 had been detained for a week in hot and overcrowded cells aboard a Border Force vessel.
Legal experts told the hearing that if border officials paid bribes they may have breached Australian criminal law as well as Indonesian and international law.
The Australian Federal Police and Border Force are investigating the boat turnback incident and the conduct of officers.