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Australian Court to Rule on Asylum Seekers - 2001-09-05

Australia's federal court has yet to make a decision on the future of 433 asylum seekers now on their way to Papua New Guinea. The court is to rule on whether Canberra acted legally when it refused entry to the group last week sparking an international outcry.

Civil rights groups want the federal court to rule that the 433 asylum-seekers who left Australian waters on a navy ship Tuesday should have their claims for refugee status processed in Australia.

The asylum-seekers are on their way to Papua New Guinea, and will then fly to New Zealand or the Pacific nation of Nauru, for processing.

The group was rescued by a Norwegian freighter August 26 after an Indonesian vessel - illegally transporting them to Australia - began to sink. The freighter was boarded by Australian forces, when the captain, under duress from the asylum-seekers, ignored orders to stay out if Australian waters.

The standoff lasted for days while the international community met to resolve where the more than 400 mostly Afghan migrants would go.

Federal court Judge Tony North reserved his decision Wednesday and indicated a ruling was unlikely before the end of the week.

Meanwhile, two Australian government ministers have traveled to Indonesia for high level talks to curb the rise of illegal people smuggling.

Australia Prime Minister John Howard remains optimistic of the outcome. "It won't be easy, we've been trying to negotiate an agreement with the government of Indonesia now for some time and we'll continue to persevere and I hope in the end it might be possible to do so," he said.

Australia wants an extradition treaty with Indonesia so that the ringleaders behind people smuggling operations could be tried in Australia.

The four Indonesian crew rescued with the asylum-seekers last week have been charged and could face sentences of up to 20 years in jail if they are found guilty.