ROTE NDAO, Indonesia (AFP) - The captain of a migrant boat has described how Australian authorities allegedly paid US$31,000 (S$41,763) to turn the asylum-seekers back to Indonesia, claiming the crew and migrants were sent on their way in "unseaworthy" vessels.
In an interview with police on Rote island, where the 71 asylum-seekers and crew came ashore last month, Indonesian captain Yohanis Humiang said Australian officials gave him US$6,000 and his five crew US$5,000 each to return to Indonesia and never engage in people-smuggling again.
But he said they were ordered to make the return journey not in their own boat - which was apparently seized by the Australians - but in two small wooden boats, Jasmine and Kanak. Mr Humiang said these were "unseaworthy", lacked proper navigation systems and had no toilets.
"We were shocked," he said, sitting at a table in front of stacks of US dollars which both he and police insist is the money that an Australian official paid the boat crew to turn back.
Wearing a black mask disguising his face, a common practice with Indonesian criminal suspects, the captain described how one boat experienced an engine failure leading to "panic" on board, and how the crew and asylum-seekers had to finish the journey in a single vessel.
"It was like an emergency situation, some of the migrants were trying to kill one another. I was scared and did not know what to do."
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is facing intense pressure over the alleged payments. He has refused to confirm or deny them, saying he does not comment on operational matters.
But Indonesia has pushed for answers in the escalating row, which risks further damaging ties already strained by Jakarta's recent execution of two Australian drug convicts.
Nusa Tenggara Timur province police chief Endang Sunjaya, who interviewed the captain Tuesday in front of a small group of journalists, said the payment amounted to "bribery", echoing strong language used this week by Indonesia's vice president.
'No right to take us'
According to initial findings by Indonesian police, the people-smuggling boat at the centre of the allegations left West Java for New Zealand on May 5 carrying 65 mostly Sri Lankan asylum-seekers.
Mr Humiang said the boat was intercepted in international waters by an Australian customs vessel after about two weeks at sea and warned not to go to Australia, but continued on its way after the captain said they were heading to New Zealand.
Several days later Australian navy and customs vessels stopped the migrants again and the captain was questioned on the customs boat by an Australian official named Agus, who appeared to have Indonesian heritage.
"He said you have committed something illegal but I told him I was still in international waters, you don't have the right to take us... But he said that we would still be arrested," the captain said.
"I said we need money to go back to our wives and children. He said 'Okay, we will provide you with assistance' - I will be given US$6,000 and the crew $5,000 each.
That was a form of assistance provided to us and he told us not to do this again. I agreed to it." After agreeing to the deal, the asylum boat was escorted into Australian territory.
The night before they set off back to Indonesia, they were evacuated to the customs boat for one night where they were placed "in isolation, like a jail", according to Mr Humiang.
The next morning they were shown the small wooden boats that would take them back to Indonesia and officials gave them life jackets, food and other equipment. But soon after setting out, one of the boats ran out of fuel and all 71 people ended up on the other vessel.
The boat later ran aground near West Timor and villagers helped rescue the asylum-seekers and notified the Indonesian police, according to Australian media reports. The six crew were arrested and are in custody.