SYDNEY • Australian officials refused to deny allegations that the authorities paid crew on a people-smuggling boat US$30,000 (S$41,900) to return 65 asylum-seekers to Indonesia, while insisting that no laws had been broken.
The refusal yesterday to confirm or deny the allegations came after Amnesty International said the evidence of cash payments could no longer be ignored and as Australia comes under mounting pressure over its heavily criticised immi- gration policies.
A Senate hearing into the allegations questioned yesterday whether a payment was ever made in the case, which saw 71 asylum-seekers and crew members arrive on Indonesia's Rote Island.
"Because it goes to the heart of operational activities... I am not able to answer that question," Australian Border Force operational commander Andrew Bottrell said.
"We are neither confirming nor denying it," added Mr Michael Pezzullo, secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
He said the Australian autho- rities' actions were legal.
Canberra's immigration policies, under which boats are turned back and asylum-seekers are denied resettlement in Australia even if they are found to be refugees, have been strongly criticised.
But the conservative government has credited them with stopping the flow of asylum-seekers risking their lives on boat journeys, with no successful boat arrivals in more than a year.
The hardline approach has caused particular tensions with Indonesia, the transit point for many would-be refugees en route to Australia.
The boat at the centre of the payment allegations, which was reportedly heading to New Zealand and carrying predominantly Sri Lankan nationals, was intercepted late in May last year.
The captain of the boat, who was charged with people-smuggling, told a court in Indonesia in December last year that he negotiated the payment to take the migrants back to Indonesia to avoid going home "empty-handed".
He reportedly negotiated for 30 minutes with officials before agreeing on the payment.
Amnesty International said the evidence that Australian officials paid off the boat crew was strong and raised questions about about whether payments occurred on other occasions.
"Such payments from Australian officials would amount to a transnational crime," spokesman Graham Thom said in a statement yesterday.