Australian people smuggler gets 14 years

Oct. 23, 2012 at 6:30 AM   |   0 comments

PERTH, Australia, Oct. 23 (UPI) -- A court in Perth handed down a 14-year prison sentence to a self-confessed people smuggler whose illegal activities cost dozens of lives at sea.

Ali Khorram Heydarkhani, 41, an Iranian-born Australian citizen, pleaded guilty to organizing five poorly maintained boats to travel from Indonesia to Australia between June 2010 and January 2011, a report by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. said.

One the vessels wrecked on rocks in high seas yards from the shore of Christmas Island, killing 50 people in December 2010. The disaster was filmed by media whose clips showed people jumping into the churning sea amid bodies floating in the water.

Coast guard boats rescued 42 people but at times couldn't approach the wrecked wooden vessel because of dangerous seas.

Australians were standing helpless on shore watching the tragedy unfold.

Heydarkhani had an uncaring and reckless attitude for the lives of his human cargo, thinking only of financial reward, Judge Stephen Scott told the court, ABC said.

The District Court in Perth heard the final trip was organized even though Heydarkhani knew people had been killed when one of his other boats crashed into rocks at Christmas Island.

Heydarkhani's sentence is the first under new laws that consider whether an accused person's actions are reckless to the point of putting people's lives in danger or causing serious injury, ABC said.

His court appearance alone was a success for Australia's hardening attitude toward people smugglers.

The government has been working diplomatic channels to get agreements with Asian countries to coordinate efforts to have suspected smugglers face trials.

Heydarkhani was arrested in Indonesia in January and extradited to Perth to face trial.

He pleaded guilty to four of the original 12 charges after a plea bargain and must serve 9 1/2 years before parole consideration.

ABC quoted Heydarkhani's lawyer, Ian MacFarlane, saying the sentence should be a deterrent to other smugglers.

"Let that be a lesson to anybody who wants to participate in people smuggling bringing people into Australia illegally," he said.

Thousand of asylum seekers arrive in Australian waters in rickety boats each year, the vast majority having paid hundreds or thousands of dollars to people smugglers for passage.

The first landing site usually has been Christmas Island, an Australian territory about 1,600 miles from the mainland but less than 200 miles south of Indonesia.

Government figures show Australia has had a surge in asylum seekers, already reaching 13,000 arrivals this year, up from 4,350 in 2011.

Because the processing center on Christmas Island is at capacity, the government recently pushed a controversial asylum seeker processing bill through Parliament.

The bill allows the government to agree with neighboring countries in the South Pacific to open processing centers on their territory.

Australia's government hopes that offshore processing centers will deter would-be asylum seekers from attempting the perilous sea journey.

The intended message under the so-called Pacific Solution is that entry to Australia is not a foregone conclusion if they make it to an Australian shore or are rescued by Australian vessels.

Under the bill, Australia reopened a center on Nauru center last month.

Nauru, an almost circular island in the South Pacific, has a population of just more than 9,000 and is under the protection of Australia, although it has been independent since 1968.

A second center is to open soon on Papua New Guinea's rugged, jungle-covered Manus Island off its northern coast.

But opposition parties have slammed the cost of the Labor government's two centers, a report by the Age newspaper said.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen had said the cost of recreating the centers on Nauru and Manus Island would be nearly $3 billion over four years. Critics say it will cost another $1.2 billion, The Age reported.

This week around 300 banner-carrying protesters marched through Melbourne calling on the government to abandon the Pacific Solution, claiming the centers are infringements of human rights.

The marchers from groups including the Victorian Council of Churches, the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union and Labor4refugees held peaceful sit-down protest that halted traffic, The Age report said.

The protest was organized by the Refugee Advocacy Network to mark the 11th anniversary of the sinking of the refugee boat SIEV X, which claimed 353 lives.

The SIEV X was sailing from Indonesia to Australia when it sank south of Java.

Topics: Chris Bowen
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