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Australia Jails 2 Indonesian Fishermen for Smuggling Asylum Seekers - 2002-09-27

Two Indonesian fishermen have been jailed for attempting to smuggle more than 400 asylum seekers into Australia in August of last year. The incident captured the world's attention when the refugees were rescued from their sinking vessel by a Norwegian freighter, only to be refused entry into Australia.

The captain of the Indonesian fishing boat, 31-year-old Bastian Disun, was jailed for seven years. A 32-year-old deckhand, Norbames Nurdun, was sentenced to four years. Judge Allan Fenbury of West Australian District Court in Perth told the men he hoped they would be deported as soon as their sentences were completed.

The prosecution had demanded far tougher penalties, insisting on a punishment that would serve as a deterrent to other human traffickers. But Judge Fenbury said stricter border control measures had already reduced the flow of boat people heading to Australia from Indonesia, and that more punitive sentences were not necessary.

Two other Indonesian men were acquitted of trying to smuggle the asylum seekers, and will be deported. Their lawyer, Tim Monahan, said it is too easy for young men with only limited education to fall into such situations. "In this case, certainly, the jury have obviously accepted that my client just didn't know where he was going. He was just a bunny who was recruited by the organizers and he didn't simply understand what was going on," he said.

The court had earlier heard how the smugglers made more than $2 million for taking 433 asylum seekers, mostly Afghans, to Australia on the leaky fishing boat in August of 2001. The smuggling gang was described as "greedy, evil" people who were prepared to risk lives in return for a profit.

The incident made international headlines after the Indonesian fishing boat began to sink in the Indian Ocean, and all on board were rescued by the crew of a Norwegian cargo ship, the Tampa.

The Australian government then refused to allow the Tampa to unload the asylum seekers on Australian soil, prompting widespread criticism from around the world. Armed commandoes were sent onto the Norwegian ship to stop the Tampa docking on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island.

The asylum seekers were eventually transported to a specially-built detention center on the South Pacific island state of Nauru, and another in Papua New Guinea. Most of their applications for refugee status were later rejected. A small group was flown to New Zealand, where they are now living as refugees.