Exactly – how exactly is it fair to jail poor Indonesian crew on refugee boats for a mandatory five years? In what way is it just? And, if you’re worried about precious taxpayer money, in what way is it a good use of court time (because there’s no incentive to plead guilty), and of (very expensive) prison resources?
Budi was waiting for a bus in Jakarta when he says a stranger made him an offer that was too good to refuse – 10 million rupiah (about $A1000) to crew a boat that would take a group of people to an unnamed island.
He was 19 years old, uneducated and a long way from his home on the Indonesian island of Ambon. Another man at the bus stop was offered the same deal and, like Budi, agreed without a second’s hesitation. The only catch, they were told, was that they wouldn’t get paid until they came back with the boat.
What neither of them understood was that there was never any chance that the boat would make the return journey, or that they would receive the payment. What neither could envisage, or even vaguely comprehend, was that they would wind up in an Australian jail facing a serious criminal charge with a mandatory five-year jail term.
Budi, not his real name, is an accidental people smuggler, if you accept that cooking noodles and keeping the engine going on an unseaworthy fishing boat for a group of desperate asylum seekers constitutes people smuggling.
So, naturally, there’s no alternative but to punish them more harshly than many Australians who commit violent crimes. I mean, what rational country could do differently? The results speak for themselves:
First, is the impact on the individuals concerned, which has prompted no fewer than 10 judges to describe the mandatory penalty as unnecessarily ”harsh”, ”severe” and out of line with sentencing requirements in all Australian jurisdictions.
Aside from the effect on the 200 Indonesians who have already been sentenced and more than 200 now before the courts, is the impact on their families. Almost invariably, the person in jail is the main breadwinner of his family and, with him out of play for up to five years, the pressure is on siblings or offspring to leave school and help eke out a living. Poverty is compounded…
This raises the second troubling aspect: the question of whether the mandatory terms are, as Attorney-General Nicola Roxon maintains, worthwhile as ”part of our armoury” in deterring boat arrivals.
During a recent inquiry by a Senate committee, several parties argued there was no evidence that locking up impoverished Indonesians had done anything to stop the boats, not least because the supply of young, gullible and desperately poor males like Budi across an Indonesian archipelago with a population of 245 million is unlimited.
It’s the perfect storm of cruelty, injustice, waste and stupidity.
And both big old parties are welded to it. Fortunately there is an alternative.