Australia’s ‘Merauke Five’ Back after Indonesia Ordeal

MELBOURNE ~ Five Australians made an emotional return on Wednesday after a nine-month ordeal in which they were detained by Indonesian authorities for flying their light plane into a sensitive province.

The group, dubbed the “Merauke Five” by Australian media, said they were relieved but exhausted after protracted wrangling in the Indonesian courts, which initially jailed them for three years.

“I feel like a goldfish that has escaped a pool of piranhas,” pilot William Scott-Bloxam told national news agency AAP after the five returned in the same plane to Horn Island off Australia’s northern coast.

The middle-aged group left for a three-day sight-seeing trip last September but hopelessly misjudged the situation in Papua, where Indonesia is fighting a low-level insurgency and has been accused of human rights abuses.

The result was a months-long battle to leave with some of their time spent in prison and a rat-infested detention centre.

“Nobody realised that West Papua was so sensitive, that it was like flying into a military base,” said one of the five, Hubert Hofer.

Observers who met Scott-Bloxam, his wife Vera and passengers Hofer, Keith Mortimer and Karen Burke at Horn Island’s airport said they appeared “in the pink” physically but emotionally drained.

None of them had visas or permission to fly through Indonesian airspace but they were cleared to land at Merauke airport by air-traffic controllers on September 12.

However, the five were immediately detained and then sentenced to up to three years’ jail in January, prompting intense diplomatic efforts to secure their freedom.

They eventually won an appeal in March but were forced through an agonising wait as prosecutors tried to have the conviction reinstated.

Scott-Bloxam said he was on his way home for a long-awaited beer, while Mortimer immediately tucked into a traditional meat pie at the airport canteen.

“It’s hard to imagine that you end up in the highest court in the land for a misdemeanour case,” Mortimer told AAP.

“We went up and down a lot; it was always hard.”

Australian media speculated that Indonesian prosecutors pursued the case with such vigour as payback for Canberra’s tough stance on illegal fishing in its northern waters.

Fishing vessels, most of them Indonesian, are burned after being captured by Australian patrol boats and their crews face lengthy spells in immigration detention.

The case initially received little attention in Australia but its notoriety grew as the group continued to be detained. On Tuesday, they were frustrated over a last-minute hold-up over their permission to leave.

Mortimer said he was grateful for the Australian government’s efforts on their behalf.

“I think they should have got themselves involved a lot earlier than they did but bottom line is they got there and we’re out,” he said.

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