Australian police defend tip-off to Indonesia that led to arrest, executions of drug smugglers

(Left to right) Australian Federal Police (AFP) Deputy Commissioner Michael Phelan, AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin and Deputy Commissioner Leanne Close speak to the media during a press conference in Canberra, Australia, on May 4, 2015. -- PHOTO: EPA
(Left to right) Australian Federal Police (AFP) Deputy Commissioner Michael Phelan, AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin and Deputy Commissioner Leanne Close speak to the media during a press conference in Canberra, Australia, on May 4, 2015. -- PHOTO: EPA

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's police force on Monday defended its involvement in tracking an international drug smuggling network that culminated in the execution of two Australians by firing squad in Indonesia last week.

The role of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) has been widely criticised at home, with many arguing the police should have prevented some of the so-called "Bali Nine" from leaving Australia instead of tipping off their Indonesian counterparts.

Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin said investigating officers knew the Australians would be exposed to arrest - and potentially the death penalty, which Australia does not have - when they asked Indonesia to monitor the group.

But AFP did not have enough evidence to arrest any of the group before they left, he said, adding that police also needed to trace the entire network to break the heroin smuggling ring. "Decisions like this aren't taken lightly," Mr Colvin told reporters in Canberra. "They're agonising decisions. We can't apologise for the role we have in trying to stop drug importation."

Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the two Australians named as ringleaders of the Bali Nine, were arrested in 2005 at an airport on the island of Bali for trying to smuggle 8kg of heroin to Australia.

The pair were executed last week, alongside six other drug smugglers from several countries, despite strong international criticism of Indonesia's use of the death penalty. The other seven men and women who made up the Bali Nine are serving long jail sentences in Indonesia.

The AFP has defended its involvement previously, but had stayed quiet in the run-up to the executions last week.

It was revealed on the eve of the executions that the police had since made significant changes to insure against similar cases.

Since 2009, a federal minister has been required to sign off before sharing information with foreign agencies that might place Australians at risk of the death penalty, documents released under a freedom of information request showed.

Mr Colvin denied an allegation by lawyer Mr Bob Myers, a family friend of Bali Nine convict Scott Rush, that police promised Rush's father his son would be stopped from leaving Australia.

Mr Lee Rush had contacted police, concerned about his son. Scott Rush had his death sentence commuted to life in 2011.

"If there is to be a message out of these executions that we saw last week... I sincerely hope it is that other young lives are saved by people thinking twice before participating in serious crimes overseas," said Mr Colvin.