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Published in On Line Opinion 18 June 2012

The story portrayed in the Four Corners program, ‘Smugglers Paradise – Australia’, on the 4 June, was not the one intended. Responding to criticism in The Australian, which I think is misplaced, the producer, Sue Spencer, says the facts of the program are not in dispute, I disagree.

The thrust and intent of the program was contained in the promo, “Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called people smugglers ‘the scum of the earth’. This program reveals how many of them have made their way to Australia posing as asylum seekers and have persuaded the government to grant them refugee status and residency.”

Producer Sarah Ferguson, presenter Kerry O’Brien and the ABC have attached themselves to this particularly nasty epithet. Why?

We know that not all people smugglers are bad. A book has been written about one. I t has been released to great acclaim. More copies were sold at the recent Sydney Writers Festival than for any other book. It was written by Robin De Crespigny about Ali Al Jenabi. It was three years in the writing. Al Jenabi was under surveillance, there was no secret about the production of the book.

The book details the character of Al Jenabi, the trials and tribulations that forced him to leave Iraq and how he became involved in people smuggling and put together boat-loads of people for passage to Australia. Ali is a remarkable character, something that the AFP, Immigration, ASIO and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service do not want to know about or put about in the Australian community. Why didn’t Ferguson seek to balance her story with an interview with Ali?

It might be seen that the ABC program sought to counter that rather positive image. Certainly the promo leaves one with that impression. In the face of some rather quizzical comments about the program, Ferguson sought, and had published, an explanation of how she put the story together. But it raised as many questions as it answered.

She is at pains to describe the pressure she was under to get the story out by a certain time. Why the pressure on an investigative piece of journalism that certainly could have used more time in the making? We are introduced to Hussain Nasir who, Ferguson says in The Australian, was a colleague who ‘took us step by step during the course of a year towards Captain Emad.’ Nasir has since confessed to Paul Maley of The Australian on 11 June, that he has had, ‘a long working relationship with Australian Federal Police aimed at smashing people-smuggling rackets.’ I would have thought it was incumbent upon Ferguson to provide viewers with that fact, presuming of course that she knew.

Ferguson gave the impression that she had the skeleton of the story and she spent time putting flesh on it. The question is; who pulled that skeleton from the cupboard?

At the end of 2010 a boat which departed Indonesia went missing with ninety seven people on board. People associated with putting the asylum seekers on board were convinced it had arrived in Australian waters, but not Nasir, the AFP agent. He alone pursued enquiries in Jakarta. Ferguson says he pursued people smugglers because he hated them, twice they had cheated him and he was concerned at the way they exploited women and children.

How did Nasir survive in Jakarta? Ferguson says at one point Nasir filmed a people smuggler with a hidden camera. Was he paid for this? He told Paul Maley that he frequently passed information to the AFP about the activities of people smugglers while he was living in Indonesia.

Others in the story also give the appearance of working for the AFP. In the program Ferguson talks of an Abu Ali Kuwaiti who went by boat to Australia, was convicted in 2001 of people smuggling and by 2010 was back in Jakarta as ‘head of one of Indonesia’s most powerful smuggling syndicates’. What she fails to mention is that Al Kuwaiti, also known as Abdul Kadem, was deported from Australia. He and his family were so badly treated in detention, his young sons self harmed, that he vowed to send as many boats to Australia as he could.

The allegations and evidence put forward in the program, surrounding the claims made about Captain Emad, lack credibility. We are told that he came to Australia by boat and that his application for refugee status was accelerated. He received a permanent visa three months after arrival. Why? As an investigative reporter Fergusson should have pursued this. Why was this favour done for him? On whose recommendation was he fast tracked?

We are told that he received not one government house but three! There is a three to four year wait for government housing in the ACT, why and how was the swash-buckling Emad able to so spectacularly jump the housing queue? Why did he and his family receive such favoured treatment, particularly when other refugees must find their own homes, often having to share? These questions should have been asked and followed up.

Why would Emad come to Australia by boat when he could fly? Over the sound of the boats engines how could a sleeping fellow passenger hear someone jump over-board? A rendezvous (RV) in the middle of a dark night with a fishing boat – hardly. An RV with an Australian naval vessel in the early hours of the morning, guided by flares from a ship with no crew, without questions being asked at unexpected nautical skills displayed by a boat load of refugees. Why RV at night when it might be more safely done during the day? The story does not hold together.

Ferguson calls the plan for Emad to come to Australia audacious, I call it unbelievable; at the very least it requires a lot more testing and examination.

Ferguson cites very large amounts of money as the price for people to come to Australia. In one instance she says it cost $36,000 for three people to come to Australia and in another, $11,300 per person. For that amount of money people can fly with credible forged documents. These and other figures she quotes are simply not believable.

Ferguson appears out of her depth. This is not a story about cruelty to cattle that, once dropped in a lap, can be followed relatively easily. This is a story that even on the surface is one of duplicity. It seems likely that all of the main characters were working for the AFP, as part of a disruption operation. The AFP appears to have established some networks and captured others. It is not an unusual method of police operations. Within the networks they have established they can choose what is going to happen and when.

Nor would it be unusual for the AFP to give Emad privileges and protection. The people smuggler and AFP informant, who set up Ali Al Jenabi for arrest, subsequently received fast tracked Australian citizenship, indemnity from prosecution and a tax free lump sum of $250,000 from the AFP.

The Indonesians were not happy with the release of the story, possibly because they were kept out of the loop, a loop they probably felt they should be part of.

Why was the story aired at this time; to discredit Ali Al Jenabi and his supporters, to discredit Immigration or the AFP? We know that tensions exist between ASIS, the AFP and ASIO, but the latter has lost the struggle and is very much the hand maiden of the AFP. Have these rivalries and tensions spilt over?

Captain Emad, also known as Ali Al Abassi, fled Australia the day after the Four Corners program went to air. There was no attempt by the AFP to stop him, despite Emad being on a police alert list. Did he run or was he pushed? The AFP say they know where he is and if they can get enough evidence together they may seek to extradite him to face people smuggling charges. But then again they may not, particularly if he has been working for them.

Since publication of the shorter version of this story in The Canberra Times on 15 June, what I regard as very reliable sources have come forward to say that both Nasir and Emad were in the intelligence branch of Saddam Hussein’s army and that Nasir is such a bad egg that UNHCR withdrew his refugee status while he was still in Indonesia.

Eleven boats have arrived in the past two weeks or so; who turned on the tap?

Like Howard, Abbott refuses to criticise the AFP; are there those amongst them that would prefer a coalition government in order to secure their empire, to keep prying eyes at bay?

Who watches the watchers? The AFP is not subject to the parliamentary oversight of defence and foreign affairs. It should be. There should be a permanent Senate Committee watching what the AFP does in our name. Lack of oversight can lead to corruption – moral, political and financial.

Of course there would be no need for people smugglers if there was a strongly constituted regional forum to handle the needs of refugees and displaced people. The successful operation of such a forum would be the litmus test of the humanity, tolerance and compassion within and amongst our neighbours.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator, former diplomat and Member of the Refugee Review Tribunal. The ABC refused to publish this story.