Inquiry into asylum-seeker abuse claims

Last updated 16:25 07/02/2014

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Australia

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Australian Defence Minister David Johnston has launched a tirade against claims the navy abused asylum-seekers, insisting defence brass had assured him that the allegations were baseless and branding the claims ''hearsay, innuendo and rumour''.

But Senator Johnston refused to detail any measures taken to investigate the claims, deferring on that point to the Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, who has ultimate charge of border protection.

Instead he called for an investigation into ''the ABC commentary'' - referring to the national broadcaster's reporting of the claims - and slammed as ''weasel words'' ABC management's expression of regret over some aspects of its reporting.

Senator Johnston's angry remarks followed a report in Fairfax Media in which Sudanese asylum-seeker Yousif Ibrahim Fasher stood by - and added considerable detail to - his claims that three asylum-seekers had had their hands deliberately burned by navy sailors.

The Minister did not attack the Fairfax report, reserving his fire instead for the ABC.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, however, stopped short of backing Senator Johnston's call for an inquiry into the ABC, indicating he was satisfied by the criticism aired by the broadcaster's own Media Watch programme on Monday.

Abbott said on Friday that there was still no evidence that credibly cast doubt on the actions of navy personnel who turned a boat back to Indonesia around January 6 - when the abuse is alleged to have taken place.

Asked whether the government should release any video it had of the interception and turnback of the boat, Abbott said that might help people smugglers and therefore hamper the job of stopping the boats.

''I don't want to do anything that might complicate that task of stopping the boats and frankly I don't want to do anything that would cast aspersions on the professionalism of our naval and customs personnel. I have nothing but respect for them ... and I have seen nothing that credibly casts any doubts on that professionalism.''

Senator Johnston also said he was happy with assurances given to him by defence brass.

''I have discussed this matter with senior command,'' he said. ''They have assured me that there is no substance to these allegations.''

But he refused to detail measures taken to investigate the claims, instead calling for scrutiny of the ABC.

''If ever there was an event that justified a detailed inquiry, some reform and investigation of the ABC, this is it,'' he said.

He said the navy had been "maliciously maligned" by the ABC's coverage of the matter, dismissing the public broadcaster's apology as "weasel words" by its senior management.

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''I have not said much because, I have to confess, I was extremely angry. I required some time to cool off,'' he said.

When asked why his department had not answered a detailed list of questions by Fairfax Media based on a detailed eyewitness account, Senator Johnston said it was a matter for Mr Morrison because it was a ''civil public policy issue''.

''When you give me something to act upon that is more than just hearsay, innuendo and rumour, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it,'' he said.

Asked to respond to specific claims the navy boats turned off lights at night, allegedly to avoid detection in Indonesian waters, Senator Johnston said ''I'm not aware of operational matters''.

''You need to put that to border protection command.''

Nor could Senator Johnston explain the circumstances surrounding the asylum seeker's injuries.''They're on water matters that are not my responsibility because it is civil public policy matter,'' he said.

He said the navy and Customs personnel carrying out border protection were heroes who had saved thousands of lives in recent years amid the spike in boat arrivals under Labor.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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