Australian police said an alleged people-smuggling kingpin who was granted a refugee visa fled the country this week after a television expose, and they were powerless to stop him.
Tony Negus, head of the Australian Federal Police, said the accused smuggler known as Captain Emad flew out of Melbourne on Tuesday after a damning documentary about him aired in Australia on Monday.
Emad had travelled from Indonesia on a people-smuggling boat in January 2010 and set up smuggling operations in the national capital, Canberra, after being granted asylum under a false name, according to the ABC Four Corners programme.
The allegations angered the Indonesian government, which described them as “disappointing and difficult” given that Australia expected their help in tracking down people-smugglers.
Negus took the rare step on Thursday of confirming that Emad had been the focus of police inquiries for two years, given the significant public interest in the case, but said the Iraqi-born man had since fled.
“There was an operational decision made by investigators that he could not be detained as the officers had no lawful basis to prevent him from departing Australia,” Negus said.
“This was despite the material recently aired in the Four Corners programme being thoroughly analysed by our investigators.”
Negus said police “have an idea” where Emad had gone but were not prepared to share that information in case it compromised future law-enforcement operations.
He added there were considerable resources allocated to the investigation of Emad and his associates and there had been a raid on a home in Canberra late last year linked to their alleged smuggling syndicate.
“Despite this effort, however, there remains insufficient evidence to charge any of the syndicate members with a criminal offence at this time,” he said.
Negus acknowledged Indonesia’s concerns but dismissed suggestions that ties had been damaged by the revelations.
“One of the reasons I’m here today is to actually reassure the public and our colleagues internationally that (police) and the Australian government (are) very serious about people-smuggling,” he said.
“There are literally thousands of people coming through this pipeline… and sometimes these people can slip through the process.”
Emad was described as the “head of the smugglers, the head of the snake” by an informant who linked him to a powerful Indonesian ring behind two ill-fated boats which sank before reaching Australia, killing almost 150 people.
He was sent as part of a plan to expand the ring’s operations in Australia, along with “at least” another six agents on board his ship who were also granted refugee status, according to the programme.
Though they come in relatively small numbers by global standards, the issue of asylum-seekers is a political hot potato that dominated Australian national elections in 2010 due to a record number of boat arrivals from Asia.
Australia is on track to rival or exceed the 2010 record of 6,555 asylum-seekers, with 50 boats arriving so far this year carrying 3,773 passengers.
Negus said Emad’s syndicate was among more than a dozen currently being investigated in Australia, with 14 prosecutions of alleged smugglers already completed or underway and more than 550 boat crew arrested since 2008.