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Revealed: payback row snares Papua tourists

Sydney Morning Herald - May 29, 2009

Tom Allard, Jakarta – Five middle-aged Australians trapped in Papua for more than eight months after arriving without visas have become the unwitting victims of Indonesian hostility about Australia's treatment of Indonesia's citizens.

The hidden agenda behind the drawn-out proceedings against the so-called Merauke five, revealed in court documents obtained by the Herald, highlights how the case has moved beyond a simple immigration matter to the realm of diplomatic relations.

Arrested, sentenced to prison, exonerated on appeal and then placed in detention again, William Scott-Bloxam, his wife, Vera, Keith Mortimer, Hubert Hofer and Karen Burke have been through an extraordinary and harrowing ordeal.

The five had planned a sight-seeing trip in and around the small town of Merauke on Papua's remote south coast in September last year, making a one-hour trip in a light aircraft piloted by Mr Scott-Bloxam from Horn Island, in the Torres Strait.

They were given permission to land by air traffic controllers aware they had no visa or prior flight clearance.

A recording of the exchange between the plane and Indonesian controllers, obtained by the Herald, reveals they were told before landing that they would be detained for a few hours, pay a fine but be free to leave, as planned, after three days.

The subsequent scale of their punishment and their pursuit by Indonesian authorities have been at odds with what appears to be a relatively innocent infringement. The latest submission by prosecutors to the Supreme Court sheds light on why.

It urges judges to recognise the prison sentences as "in accordance to the law, unlike our neighbouring country who, without legal process, burn and sink Indonesian fishing boats that enter their territorial borders".

Australian authorities have impounded or destroyed hundreds of Indonesian fishing vessels in the past few years, preventing them from going to traditional fishing grounds that extend into Australian waters. The fishing boats have been visiting the waters for centuries and the crackdown on their activities has destroyed livelihoods of impoverished villagers, causing deep resentment across Indonesia.

Many fishing vessels and their crews have recently been co-opted by people smugglers. The captains of boats carrying human cargo have received prison sentences of several years in Australia when caught. This, too, has caused angst in Indonesian Government ranks.

Another factor believed to be behind the treatment of the Merauke five is the continuing sensitivity in Indonesia about Australia granting asylum to 43 Papuan separatists.

The Indonesian Government withdrew its ambassador and complained bitterly about the decision. In contrast, Australia has refused to express any public anger about the fate of the Merauke five.

The five Australians – aged between 50 and 60 – have remained quiet on the advice of diplomats. But the entreaties of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Stephen Smith, and the Australian ambassador in Jakarta, Bill Farmer, on the issue have been ignored.

Calls to the offices of both men yesterday were referred to a spokesman at the Department of Foreign Affairs. "The judicial process is continuing," the spokesman said. "We are waiting for the Supreme Court to make its decision."

But the fate of the Merauke five is subject to forces outside purely judicial considerations.

After being found guilty of immigration offences and jailed for two to three years, the five were exonerated in an appeal to a higher court this year. The court not only overturned the conviction but ordered that they be permitted to return home, regardless of any appeal.

The Attorney-General's office then placed a travel ban on the five, in effect putting them under house arrest in Merauke until a final appeal is heard. "This has gone on far too long," said the Opposition's foreign affairs spokeswoman, Julie Bishop.

"The Attorney-General's intervention takes it beyond the legal process and it's become a political issue. The Federal Government must make official representations to the Government of Indonesia to get this order overturned."