SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Australia's High Court will hear an emergency application on Tuesday to stop the government from handing 153 asylum seekers intercepted at sea back to Sri Lanka, a major challenge to the secrecy and validity of Australia's tough immigration policies.
Lawyer George Newhouse, who is representing 48 people on board the boat, won an interim injunction late Monday preventing government action on the boat until Tuesday's court hearing.
The legal action follows the interception and return on Sunday of 41 other Sri Lankan asylum seekers on a separate boat by Australian authorities.
Sri Lankan police said on Monday those 41 would be charged with leaving the country illegally and any found guilty would face "rigorous imprisonment", raising fears about rights abuses.
Rights groups and some Western countries have raised concerns with Sri Lanka over accusations of human rights violations during the final phase of the war against Tamil separatists that ended in 2009.
There is also growing concern in Australia and abroad about the conservative Australian government's hardline immigration policies, a centrepiece of its election victory last year.
The United Nations Refugee Agency said on Tuesday it was"deeply concerned" about the return of the 41 asylum seekers and the fate of the other 153 people.
Legal expert Don Rothwell said Tuesday's High Court hearing could reveal more information about the location of the second boat, undermining the government's usual secrecy surrounding its"Operation Sovereign Borders" policy of sending back asylum seeker boats before they reach Australian territory.
On Monday, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison declined to comment on the second boat other than to say it was not in Australian waters.
The legal challenge from Newhouse, of law firm Shine, alleges that handing back the asylum seekers is illegal because they have not had their claims for protection heard fully.
The United Nations and rights groups have expressed concern about reports that Australia's "enhanced screening" process, used to assess asylum seekers on the first boat, involves asking them just four questions over a phone link to Australia.
"UNHCR's experience over the years with shipboard processing has generally not been positive," the Refugee Agency said in a statement. "Such an environment would rarely afford an appropriate venue for a fair procedure." The onus in court will be on Newhouse to make his case for the asylum seekers but the judge is likely to ask the government for more information about the situation, Rothwell said. "Most important from the legal perspective is what element of Australian control is being exercised over the persons on board," he said.
Morrison's office declined to comment on the case because it is before the courts.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who came to power last September partly because of his tough stance on asylum seekers, avoided questions about the situation on Tuesday, but said the government's resolve is clear. "We promised we would stop the boats and we are stopping the boats," he told Channel 7 television.
The Australian government has touted its success in blocking asylum seeker boats, saying there have been no illegal arrivals since last December.
Australia received 16,000 asylum seeker applications last year, just under 0.5 percent of the 3.6 million lodged worldwide, UN figures show, and a drop from one percent in 2010.
The incident comes on the eve of a visit by Morrison this week to Sri Lanka, where he is due to talk with government and defence officials and attend a ceremony with President Mahinda Rajapakse to mark Australia's gift of two former patrol vessels.