Tony Kevin with his book A Certain Maritime Incident.
Tony Kevin with his book A Certain Maritime Incident.
6 min read

SIEV X anniversary: Cover-up claims remain 20 years after 353 asylum seekers drowned

This week marks 20 years since a fishing boat sank between Indonesia and Australia with hundreds of asylum seekers on board. Amid disputed claims of a cover-up, a fresh court case may soon shed more light on what happened.

Published Tuesday 19 October 2021
By Stefan Armbruster
Source: SBS News
A memorial in Canberra stands in the shadows of federal parliament for 353 mainly Afghans and Iraqis who died on a fishing boat known only as SIEV X.

They drowned 20 years ago after leaving Indonesia in the first major - and worst - asylum seeker boat tragedy on record of those trying to reach Australia.

The incident, on 19 October 2001, remains subject to claims of a cover-up by the Australian Government and the exact circumstances around its sinking remain unknown.

'SIEV' stood for 'suspected illegal entry vessel', and it was given the 'X' designation because unlike other boats that were given a number as they were intercepted and returned by Australia, this ill-fated one, and its 421 passengers, was not.

Amal Basry was one of just 45 people who survived.

The Australian newspaper from the time of the tragedy
The tragedy was was front page news in Australia. Source: SBS News

She told SBS Dateline in 2002 about the horror she experienced as a wave crashed into the 19-metre vessel, overturning it and throwing passengers into rough seas.

“It was like the doors of hell opening onto us, the moment everyone was screaming. In a moment, I saw many dead bodies floating.” 

She clung to the body of a woman to survive, she said. More than 280 of those who died were women and children.

“Children and women were all around me dying. I heard them screaming, dying.”

She, like other survivors, claimed military-style vessels approached them in the water at night then departed. They were eventually rescued by another passing Indonesian fishing boat.

Ms Basry died in 2006. 

Cover-up claims

The tragedy happened as John Howard's government hardened its stance on asylum seekers ahead of the federal election, and came just weeks after the .

It was added to the 'A Certain Maritime Incident Inquiry' by a Senate committee and exposed the government’s Operation Relex, which was intended to monitor, disrupt and stop boats in international waters beyond Australia's territorial seas.

Mr Howard claimed the SIEV X sank in Indonesian waters, and so was Indonesia's responsibility.

But whistleblower and former Australian ambassador Tony Kevin gave evidence to the Senate inquiry suggesting it sank in international waters. 

Tony Kevin with his book A Certain Maritime Incident.
Tony Kevin believes the SIEV X tragedy was a cover-up. Source: SBS News

“It sunk in the Indian Ocean, in the Australian maritime surveillance zone, and in a zone where Australian ships could have very readily and easily gone to the rescue,” he said ahead of the 20th anniversary.

Mr Kevin said what happened was a "cover-up".

“Absolutely there was a cover-up, a cover-up of the Australian involvement in the people smuggling disruption program in Indonesia.” 

“The SIEV X was part of the disruption operation, it was intended to sink; a coffin ship. There was never any possibility of it reaching Christmas Island.”

A map showing the location of the incident
A map showing the location of the incident, printed in The Australian newspaper in 2001. Source: The Australian

Philip Ruddock was the immigration minister at the time. He adamantly rejects claims of a cover-up.

“When you saw all the evidence [at the inquiry] about it from very senior and very experienced public servants, it’s unreasonable to question the judgements they formed,” he said.

His department had responsibility for processing intelligence from Australian disruption operations by Australian Federal Police agents in Indonesia.

“I don’t believe I had seen any suggestion from my department that they knew,” he said.

“I have no recollection of me specifically being briefed on those matters.”

"I don’t feel personal culpability": Former immigration minister Philip Ruddock
"I don’t feel personal culpability": Former immigration minister Philip Ruddock Source: SBS News

The inquiry didn't reach a definitive conclusion on the location of the sinking, nor did it cast any blame.

Its concluding statement in October 2002 said: “It is extraordinary … a major human disaster could occur in the vicinity of … intensive Australian operations and remain undetected until three days after the event without any concern being raised within intelligence and decision-making circles”. 

Lives remembered

Following the Tampa affair, the Howard government hardened its policy on asylum seekers by introducing boat turnbacks.

SIEV X then sank a week before Mr Howard delivered his famous line: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”.

Commenting 24 hours after the SIEV X incident, Mr Ruddock told the media: “This tragedy may have an upside, in the sense that some people will see the dangers that are inherent in it”.

Looking back, Mr Ruddock said those comments were made “in the context of people understanding if you put yourself in people smugglers’ hands … it’s not a very sensible venture in which to engage”.

Canberra's Siev-X memorial marks the 353 lives lost.
Canberra's Siev-X memorial marks the 353 lives lost. Source: SBS News

Mr Ruddock had introduced temporary protection visas (TPVs) in 1999, denying refugees in Australia family reunion rights.

He was also blamed by asylum seeker advocates for pushing people to attempt perilous boat journeys as a last resort.

“It’s an easy call to try and hold someone accountable,” Mr Ruddock said.

“I don’t look back and say 'what we did brought this about', so I don’t feel personal culpability in relation to it.

“It doesn’t mean I don’t feel very much for the loss of life that has occurred.”

Fresh hope

Two people were convicted over the SIEV X tragedy 15 years ago; Egyptian people smuggler Abu Quassey, who was jailed in Egypt, and accomplice Khaled Doaed, who was jailed for five years in Brisbane.

Now there could soon be some new answers, with another alleged accomplice to the people smuggling operation set to face court in Brisbane.

For 20 years the AFP pursued Iraqi refugee Maythem Radhi, who was extradited from New Zealand in 2019 after resettling there with his wife and family.

He is currently in a Brisbane jail and will face court in November charged with “organising groups of non-citizens into Australia” from Indonesia on the SIEV X.

Mr Kevin now supports the federal government’s boat turnback policy, as a lesser evil.

“I have mixed feelings about that. It is saving lives, it’s deterring the trade, and to that extent, it works,” he said.

“We must never ever use deaths - which could be avoided by normal search and rescue procedures - as a way of deterring refugee movements. That’s simply unconscionable, it’s a crime against humanity.

Mr Kevin said his thoughts remain with those who lost loved ones on the SIEV X.

“The grief continues for the bereaved families. As an Australian, I feel shame we didn’t do more for them.”

“I understand their desire for privacy, and respect that, but let me say here that I’m sorry.”