Fisherman Puts Oz Government On Trial


At home in his fishing village on the outskirts of Kupang, eastern Indonesia, a local fisherman called Saring furrows his brow as he studies a map given to him by Australian authorities.

"I was in Indonesian waters," he says emphatically. "The Australian patrol entered Indonesian waters. Before we left we always look at the maps to see where the maritime borders are and we use a GPS when we are out at sea."

Like some 220 other Indonesian fishermen over the past four years, Saring was arrested for allegedly entering Australian waters. His boat was burnt and he was detained in Darwin for three months.

He argued in court that he was not fishing in Australian waters and there was no fish on his boat when it was apprehended. Subsequently, the prosecution dropped all charges against him and he was sent back home. But he still lost his boat and source of income.

"That boat was the only instrument I had in order to feed and look after my family," he says.

"It went up in flames instantly because there was lots of petrol on board, but there were some parts of the boat that were still floating so the Australia navy shot at them with machine guns until they too went under. I was scared, but what could I do. I was forced to suppress the fear," he adds.

He is now taking on the Australian government in a landmark legal case. Australian lawyer Greg Phelps has taken on Saring’s case and those of six other Indonesian fishermen who faced similar treatment.

Saring’s compensation case will be heard in January and is being seen as a test case. If he wins, it will be the first time compensation has been paid by the Australian government to a traditional Indonesian fisherman.

"I want enough money to buy another boat. Here if you don’t have a boat you are nothing… you can imagine once I was person that employed other people now I am forced to beg for work on others boats," he says, managing a small laugh.

Without his boat, Saring’s wife Sufiati says they are struggling to feed the family and that their eldest son has just dropped out of school because they couldn’t pay the school fees. "All our hopes and earnings went down with that boat," she says.

Indonesian fishermen have sailed to Australia’s northern shores for the last three centuries, but in 1981 Australia was granted control over as much as 80 per cent of the sea between southern Indonesia and northern Australia.

The Indonesian government received generous promises of aid in return. The losers were people such as Saring’s friend and senior fisherman, Haji Hamittu.

"The first time I was arrested was in 2002, I paid US$3,000 and I was allowed to go home," says Hamittu. He has been arrested numerous times since the law changed and his family has since taken out a loan of several thousand dollars to survive.

"Back then the Indonesian consulate in Darwin told us to admit we were wrong and we would be allowed to go home, but we didn’t do anything wrong because we were Indonesian waters!" he says.

Hamittu says it is hard to accept they have lost sovereignty over an area of such ancestoral significance.

"My own grandma died on Pulau Pasir (Ashmore reef) in these waters, her grave is there. How can the Australians say that it’s their land?"

The maritime area causing the most concern is considered to be Indonesian waters, but is within the Australian seabed. In legal terms that means Australia has the rights to the seabed, but Indonesia has the rights to the snapper and the ordinary swimming fish above it.

Many Indonesians spotted with their fishing boats in the area have been arrested and charged in Australia since the law was revised.

"They hate the Australian government," explains local lobbyist Ferdi Tanomi.

"Why do they have to burn their boats? Why didn’t they just turn them back if in fact they did cross into Australian waters. Burning their boats is equal to killing their livelihood," says Tanomi, who previously worked with the Australian consulate in Kupang but now fights for the rights of traditional Indonesian fishermen.

Tanomi says the Indonesian representives in Darwin tell the fishermen to admit they are wrong so they can go home wrong — even if they are not guilty.

With the worst ever oil spill in the Timor Sea 15 months ago, the fishing community has been forced to cope with another devatsting blow to their livelihoods. The oil rig owned and operated by an Australian-based company, PTTEP Australasia, leaked uncontrollably for 74 days in the Montara oil field off Western Australia.

Mustafa Asad, the head of the Association of Traditional Fishermen of the Timor Sea, says the spill has caused fish stocks to decline by as much as 90 per cent. Mustafa joined his family business after the spill forced the closure of his own company, but he says others have been forced to take more dangerous jobs — namely people smuggling.

Four of Mustafa’s former employees are now in jail in Australia for illegally carrying asylum seekers into Australian waters.

"It’s tough times and the smugglers are offering a lot of money in cash. Of course automatically they [the local fishermen]are interested," says Asad.

Stickers from the International Organization for Migration have been handed out to the fisherman that say: "It’s better to catch fish than to be caught by the authorities — don’t take illegal migrants."

But these traditional fisherman say this doesn’t make sense

"It says we should catch fish. Where are the fish?! Carrying migrants is much more stable work, I mean you get paid and it’s lots of money," says Mustafa.

One fisherman who decided to take the money was Muslimin.

Muslimin was charged with fishing offences but argued that his boat was in Indonesian territory when it was apprehended. Muslimin’s lawyer, Alistair Wyvill, took this case all the way to the High Court. And he won.

After the High Court challenge, when Muslimin returned to Kupang, his family relocated back to Sulawesi. His relative, Haj Hafifa, says it was there that Muslimin was approached by the people smugglers. Muslimin is now serving five years in jail.

"He would have worked it out and knew it would be enough [money]to look after this family for at least five years if he was jailed for five," says Hafifa. "He would have calculated the cost so that it was enough for education, food, etc, while he was away."

Muslimin’s wife supported his decision. "How can you live happily with your husband if you can’t eat? If [they]live long enough, [they]will be able to meet again. If not, then it’s God’s will," explains Hafifa.

Saring admits too that he would think twice before turning down a people smuggling offer.

"I would consider it carefully, because I know it would be risky. I’ll discuss it with my family, but I would seriously consider it if the compensation doesn’t come through," says Saring.

Rebecca Henschke went to Kupang to report for the ABC’s Background Briefing. You can hear her audio report here.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.