x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Release of Australian boy on drugs charges in Bali highlights double standards

Indonesia will release an Australian boy after holding him on drug charges but Indonesian minors detained in his country are not as lucky

Indonesian security guards escort a 14-year-old Australian boy from court in Bali last week after he was sentenced  to two months in jail for buying marijuana on the resort island of Bali.
Indonesian security guards escort a 14-year-old Australian boy from court in Bali last week after he was sentenced to two months in jail for buying marijuana on the resort island of Bali.

SYDNEY // A 14-year-old Australian boy arrested in Bali for buying marijuana during a family holiday on the Indonesian resort island will be home before Christmas - bringing cheer to many Australians.

His plight generated widespread media coverage and a flurry of high-level diplomacy, with the Prime Minister Julia Gillard raising his fate with the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

In contrast, the plight of dozens of Indonesian teenagers locked away for up to two years in Australian jails for adults has attracted little attention.

Diplomatic efforts to secure their release - all were crew on boats ferrying asylum-seekers from the Middle East and Afghanistan - have been minimal.

Australian lawyers believe the boys, who say they are between 14 and 17, have been wrongly identified as adults through a discredited X-ray test.

Under a tough new law to fight people-smuggling, they each face at least five years in jail.

The Australian Human Rights Commission, a federal agency, announced last week an inquiry into the use of a wrist X-ray that measures skeletal maturity.

The government, meanwhile, may face another embarrassing High Court challenge, this time over a bill that criminalises transporting people without a valid visa to Australia.

Greg Barns, the president of the Australian Lawyers Alliance, has argued that the bill contravenes the UN refugee convention, which Australia has signed.

"Under the guise of obstructing people-smugglers, it effectively undermines the right to seek asylum," he said this week.

Mr Barns expects the bill to end up in the High Court, which in August declared the government's "refugee swap" deal with Malaysia illegal - a damaging political blow to the minority Gillard government that holds power only with the support of a handful of independent legislators.

Human-rights advocates have said the Indonesian teenagers are mostly illiterate and from poor fishing villages.Recruited as cooks or deckhands, they seemingly had no idea they were committing a crime.

Although the government has dropped 35 cases involving under-age crew, Indonesian diplomats believe up to 50 boys remain in prison.

Some advocates fear for their safety.

"Children are being locked up in adult jails alongside sex offenders and murderers," said Mark Plunkett, a Brisbane-based barrister.

Mr Plunkett, who secured the release this year of three boys held in a maximum-security prison in Brisbane, suspects one was sexually abused while incarcerated.

"When I asked them, 'has anyone been bothering you or touching you?', one of them kept crying and convulsing," he said.

He believes children are being swept up in the demonisation of people-smugglers, once described by the foreign minister and the former prime minister, Kevin Rudd, as "the vilest form of human life".

Although hundreds of Indonesians have been arrested and prosecuted, they have been fishermen and sailors - not the 'Mr Bigs' behind the lucrative operations.

Judges have complained about having to jail them for five years.

David Svoboda, another lawyer, contrasts the treatment of the young Indonesians with that of the Australian boy, who will fly home on Sunday.

He was found guilty of drug possession last week and sentenced to two months in jail.

Having already spent most of that time in an immigration detention centre with his parents, he was eligible for release almost immediately.

"The Australian government, which gives a lot of aid to Indonesia, has been flexing its muscles to ensure its citizens are treated with kid gloves," said Mr Svoboda.

"There are no votes in standing up for dark-skinned peasant fishermen from Indonesia."

The wrist X-ray test, which assumes a youth with a mature skeleton is at least 19, has been rejected by the United Nations' children's agency, Unicef, and has been criticised by Australian judges.

Four of the country's top medical bodies, including the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, have written to the immigration minister, Chris Bowen, describing the test as unethical and unreliable.

Mr Plunkett's clients - Ose Lani, 14, Ako Lani, 15, and John Ndollu, 16, all from Rote Island, in remote Indonesia, just off Timor - were recruited as crew on a boat carrying Afghan and Iranian asylum-seekers.

They were each promised US$500 (Dh1,845) for the voyage, twice what they would normally earn in a year.

"They were told they were taking Muslims who were being persecuted to a safe place," Mr Plunkett said.

Their vessel was intercepted by the Royal Australian Navy near Ashmore Reef, an uninhabited Australian island in the Indian Ocean, in April 2010.

They spent eight months in a detention centre in Darwin and after undergoing the X-ray test and were then charged, manacled and flown to Brisbane, where they were strip searched and jailed.

It was only after Mr Plunkett visited Rote and took statements from the boys' families and community leaders that prosecutors dropped the charges in June.

The latest anti-people smuggling bill, which would be retroactive, is being rushed through parliament in an effort to thwart a test case brought by the Lawyers Alliance.

The lawyers argue if people have a legal right to seek asylum, those helping them cannot be breaking the law.

A spokeswoman for the home affairs minister, Brendan O'Connor, said police liaised with their Indonesian counterparts to gather information about defendants' ages.

She also defended the wrist X-ray, saying "we are not aware of a better physical test", and added the mandatory sentencing created "an incentive for people to claim they are minors".

foreign.desk@thenational.ae