Indonesian police have provided photos of cash allegedly paid to people smugglers amid reports an Australian spy facilitated the payment.
General Endang Sunjaya, police chief of Nusa Tenggara Timur province, provided photos of the cash to Fairfax Media, which he said was given to six crew members by an Australian official, Agus.
An Australian spy aboard HMAS Wollongong dressed in civilian clothes facilitated the payment after the asylum seeker boat was deemed unsafe, The Australian reports on Wednesday.
Australian sailors transferred the 65 asylum seekers on board to two smaller boats and sent them back to Indonesia.
‘We have given you the evidence. It’s now up to you and other organisations to demand an answer from the Australian government,’ General Endang told Fairfax Media.
Indonesian police say the alleged payment took place on Andika, near Greenhill Island in the Northern Territory.
Under questioning, each crew member had sworn under oath that they were paid $US5000 ($A6460) to return to Indonesia, the general added.
Their accounts were corroborated by asylum seekers, he said.
He said the asylum seekers were sent on their way on the two boats with just a drum of fuel each before eventually hitting a reef near Landu island, in West Rote, where they were rescued by villagers.
General Endang said the police investigation report had been handed to National Police headquarters in Jakarta.
The claims come as the Greens demand the government come clean on whether taxpayers’ money was paid to asylum seeker boat crew members.
The Senate has passed a motion calling on the government to produce, by 3pm (AEST) on Wednesday, documents relating to the alleged handing of more than $US30,000 to people smugglers in a bid to get boats to return to Indonesia.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he is ‘absolutely confident’ Australian agencies had acted within the law at all times, but will not comment on the specifics.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten says Labor governments never paid people smugglers to turn boats around, but refused to say whether the practice was used on land in Indonesia.
The Australian Federal Police is also considering whether the alleged payments warrant investigation.
Former immigration minister Scott Morrison, who still sits on the front bench, says media reports of Indonesian police claims are ‘effectively hearsay’ and the government shouldn’t have to comment on them.
He repeatedly said Australian officials had always acted lawfully during operations to stop asylum seeker boats.
‘We will continue to have that success because of our resolve and determination to do things in a way that will be effective,’ he told the Nine Network.
Paying people smugglers won’t work: UN
Meanwhile, the head of the UN refugee agency in Indonesia says paying people smugglers to turn back runs counter to the tradition of rescue at sea and the refugee convention.
Thomas Vargas, the Indonesia representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said the practice could actually encourage people smugglers and would not work.
Mr Vargas said a UNHCR staff member interviewed asylum seekers aboard vessels that allegedly turned back to Indonesia after Australian officials paid crew members $US30,000.
‘At one point they saw the boat captain receive a thick envelope and return back to two boats that were then turned away to the open sea. And several days later they arrived in Indonesia,’ he told ABC television.
‘They identified boats as being customs boats and navy boats.’
The Australian government has refused to confirm that this actually occurred.
Mr Vargas said the UNHCR did not condone governments taking this kind of approach.
‘It’s certainly against the tradition of rescue at sea, against the tradition and the conventions on rescue at sea, and at the law of the sea as well as the refugee convention,’ he said.
Mr Vargas said where people were in need and distress at sea, they should be rescued and brought to land first and foremost.