Transcript: AFP Commissioner Tony Negus discussing people smuggling matters
Release Date: Friday, June 08 2012, 10:02 AM
TONY NEGUS: [Indistinct] media reporting and speculation about the Australian people smuggling investigations really since the Four Corners program aired on Monday night.
The AFP has put out a number of media releases since that time, but on this subject I feel it important to update the public on developments in the particular case that was mentioned in that program.
I would like to state from the outset that the AFP recognises that organised people smuggling is a crime that has significant, and often tragic, consequences for those embarking upon the dangerous voyage to Australia. Accordingly, it's an area of criminality that we treat very seriously.
I can advise you that the AFP currently has over a dozen active investigations into people smuggling ventures being organised from Australia. We have over 100 investigators working with our partners in this area, both here in Australia and offshore.
There remains a significant commitment by the Australian authorities to attacking people smuggling as a regional problem, with a range of joint investigation and intelligence collection endeavours underway.
Since 2008, almost 550 people from people smuggling crews have been arrested, many of whom are still before the court.
In addition to this, 12 alleged people smuggling organisers have been arrested here in Australia. There have also been two extraditions of organisers from Indonesia.
As a general rule, the AFP does not confirm or deny who it's investigating. I'm sure you can appreciate that the release of this information could jeopardise investigations and potentially the outcome of criminal prosecutions. I accept however there's a significant public interest in relation to the recent media reporting about the investigation involving the man known as Captain Emad.
I can confirm today that the activities of those featured in Monday's Four Corners report were known to the AFP prior to the program and had been the subject of an active investigation for around two years.
Whilst the Four Corners program presented a damning picture of the groups alleged involvement in a people smuggling syndicate, it's important to understand that the information presented does not automatically amount to admissible evidence that would withstand the scrutiny(*) [audio skips] in a court of law.
It's also important to remember that there is a general presumption of innocence in this country and all matters must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Now as I've said, the AFP investigation into this alleged syndicate has been active for around two years. It involves a number of suspects, many of whom are known under multiple identities.
When approached by Four Corners in February this year, the AFP provided the journalist with certain material relating to people smuggling operations prior to the program.
In this regard I should acknowledge the cooperation of the journalist, Ms Sarah Ferguson, and whilst the AFP did not have full visibility on the story she was presenting, at our request she did respect some of the more sensitive elements of this and other ongoing people smuggling investigations.
The AFP has a dedicated range of resources to this investigation, including the execution of search warrants here in Canberra late last year - actually, correct that, a single search warrant here in Canberra late last year. Now despite this effort however, there remains insufficient evidence to charge any of the syndicate members with a criminal offence at this time.
I can also update you that importantly the person referred to in the Four Corners program as Captain Emad, left Australia on Tuesday night.
When leaving Australia, the man triggered a long-standing alert at Melbourne Airport and at that time there was an operational decision made by investigators that he could not be detained, as the officers had no lawful basis to prevent him from departing Australia. This was despite the material recently aired on the Four Corners program being thoroughly analysed by our investigators.
There has been a range of commentary in the media about the television program uncovering this alleged people smuggling syndicate, when Australian authorities had not. This assertion is not correct, for the reasons I've already stated. These are complex and difficult investigations, cutting across multiple jurisdictions, languages and legal systems.
In this complex environment, our challenge is to gather sufficient admissible - and I'll repeat that - admissible evidence, to enable these organisers to be prosecuted in the Australian court.
Finally, I'd like to encourage members of the public with any additional information relating to this matter to contact police as soon as possible.
Now I'm happy to answer as many of your questions as I can, however as this investigation is ongoing - and I state that it is an ongoing investigation - I am somewhat constrained in what I can say from this point on.
QUESTION: At this point in time do you know where Captain Emad is?
TONY NEGUS: We have an idea where he's gone to but I'm not prepared to divulge his travel plans or details from there.
QUESTION: Are you monitoring him?
TONY NEGUS: Again, because it's an ongoing investigation I don't intend to telegraph what activities we'll be taking from this point on.
QUESTION: Are you cooperating with foreign police agencies with regard to Captain Emad's whereabouts and is there any expectation that he might face arrest or prosecution abroad, Commissioner?
TONY NEGUS: Look, as I've said, we - there was an alert activated at the airport on his departure. The AFP is not in possession, of enough evidence at this time, to arrest him in Australia, So there's little likelihood he would be arrested overseas and returned to us now, unless there is more evidence that can be collected prior to that point.
QUESTION: So it sounds like he will escape any form of prosecution. It sounds like he's left the country and that might be the end of the matter.
TONY NEGUS: Look, he's left the country. The AFP investigation will continue. And if there is sufficient evidence, we can certainly look to actually extradite him back to this country, or he may well return to this country of his own free will.
QUESTION: What about his family members, are the AFP interested in them? Have they questioned them? Do they remain in Canberra?
TONY NEGUS: As I said, this is all part of an ongoing investigation. I'm not going to go into the details of who, or who not, we've spoken to. It is something that we're obviously very focused on. We have a range of ongoing investigations at the moment into 12 or 13 different syndicates. This is one of them we will continue to investigate.
QUESTION: So are [indistinct] Captain Emad's family's still in Australia?
TONY NEGUS: Captain Emad has left Australia. No one else that we're aware of has left the country.
QUESTION: Does that include other members of the syndicate?
TONY NEGUS: That's correct, yes.
QUESTION: Has the Four Corners report jeopardised the police investigation at all, by tipping off these people who are under watch?
TONY NEGUS: Look, Sarah Ferguson worked with us on this and as there was no imminent arrest planned in regards to this particular syndicate we weren't in a position to ask her to hold off on the publication of the story. There is new information that has been elicited since the story went to air and our investigators will continue to run that down.
QUESTION: The story on Monday night did paint Captain Emad in a pretty damning light. Are you disappointed that police, to date, haven't got enough evidence to charge him with anything?
TONY NEGUS: Well as I said, there's one thing to paint them in a damning light in a television program, but having enough admissible evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law in this country is a different thing.
Now whilst as I said, it was quite a damning report and there's a lot of activity and a lot of things that were presented during that program which are of concern, all of that's been analysed by our legal staff and there is still insufficient evidence for us to take the matter forward.
QUESTION: Four Corners was - reported that he was behind the two boats - two ill-fated boats that sank, killing about 150 people. Do you have any evidence that he had any involvement in that - those boats?
TONY NEGUS: Yeah, look, it's very difficult for me to talk about what evidence we do and do not have in this regard, because as I said, this is ongoing. We certainly haven't given up on looking at this particular group of people and if the evidence is there they will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
QUESTION: You mentioned fresh evidence, was that someone coming forward after the program? Has the program sparked new information coming forward?
TONY NEGUS: Look again, I'm not prepared to go into what evidence has come forward. But certainly, even through Ms Ferguson's investigation, there is particular things overseas which were identified, that the AFP needs now to follow-up on.
QUESTION: Commissioner are there particular aspects of the Four Corners program that were wrong? That were unfair on Captain Emad, do you believe? And if not, if it was a fair representation, what does it say about our law that you've just got to wave this guy goodbye at the airport and let him leave?
TONY NEGUS: Well, look again, I'm not going to comment on whether it was fair or not. I think it was a reasonable summation of the allegations against Captain Emad…
QUESTION: No inaccuracies?
TONY NEGUS: None that we have seen. None that we're aware of. But again, there was a range of activities that Ms Ferguson undertook offshore, overseas, where again, in a law enforcement environment these activities, and these things, have to be undertaken by foreign law enforcement bodies on our behalf.
We're not able to go into shops and to interview people as law enforcement agencies aren't allowed to come to Australia and actually conduct their own investigations. Journalists - well fortunately for them, have that prerogative.
QUESTION: So you're saying the Four Corners report went further than you could go? Produced more evidence than the AFP's been able to produce?
TONY NEGUS: Well it hasn't produced more evidence; it's produced more allegations and more circumstances which bear further examination by ourselves and our partners internationally.
QUESTION: What about the information you just said you couldn't have collected yourself?
TONY NEGUS: No, well the AFP officers themselves can't collect that, we rely on our foreign partners to do that on our behalf. But again, we have very good relationships through the region with a range of countries and we work cooperatively in that regard.
QUESTION: Commissioner you said there was a single search warrant executed late last year in Canberra. Was that in relation to Captain Emad?
TONY NEGUS: Again, it was in relation to the syndicate, I'm not really at liberty to go any further and talk about that. But it's just an example of this has been ongoing for some time. There have been various attempts to collect evidence in a variety of offences, not just people smuggling, but a variety of offences. And at this stage there is no admissible evidence to the standard required to make an arrest.
QUESTION: And do you believe there are further members of the syndicate still in Australia?
TONY NEGUS: Well certainly the people identified in the program are all subject to ongoing investigation by the AFP.
QUESTION: Commissioner, can you tell us when do you believe the AFP is likely to conclude its enquiries into the matter concerning the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr Slipper?
TONY NEGUS: Hey look, we're very close to concluding the enquiries. We're, at the moment, waiting for Mr Slipper to come back to us to be interviewed. He's indicated he's prepared to, but we're waiting on his legal team to come back with a date for that to interview him.
QUESTION: It might be days away, weeks away, months?
TONY NEGUS: I think certainly in the next couple of weeks is what we're expecting.
QUESTION: Commissioner, Ross Fusca, the man who led the enquiry into the AWB oil-for-food scandal has told the ABC 7.30 that he was offered a promotion by a senior AFP officer on the basis that the enquiry was shut down. What do you have to say about that allegation and are you investigating it?
TONY NEGUS: Yeah, look, I'm aware of those allegations. This is part of an affidavit which Mr Fusca has put forward to the Federal Court. It relates to an employment issue, which again is subject to, really, hearings in the Federal Court coming up very soon.
The AFP will defend those allegations that he has actually made, but again it's premature and probably improper, for me to actually talk about the status of those investigations before they can be properly tested by the Federal Court.
QUESTION: Commissioner, you said the enquiry was shut down prematurely. Can you tell us why the enquiry was shut down?
TONY NEGUS: Well look, this goes back to 2009 and as it was reported at the time, there was a very thorough assessment done by Peter Hastings QC, one of Australia's most respected barristers. After that, Mr Hastings concluded that there was little chance that this matter would be successfully resolved through a criminal investigation. And in fact, it was not in the public interest to do so.
Decisions were then made by all of the agencies involved and they all concurred that the matter should be closed down and refer it to ASIC and that's what happened.
QUESTION: [Indistinct] about whether you're investigating that allegation that he was offered a promotion if he shuts it dow
TONY NEGUS: Look, we're aware of this. Our professional standards area has had conversations with appropriate authorities in this, but again, these will be tested in the Federal Court and we're really waiting the outcomes of that process before we actually make any other judgements.
QUESTION: Commissioner, given that Captain Emad has left the country now, what's stopping other members of his syndicate from doing the same? Are there restrictions on their kind of travel, or anything like that?
TONY NEGUS: Well look, I don't want to go through one by one in people that we might have an interest in, necessarily. But the results, as I said, of our investigation so far, have failed to bring to bear sufficient evidence for us to successfully arrest these people. And that's just the harsh reality of what we need to do in investigating these matters.
They are complex, they are difficult. We need to have not just allegations and not just people who say things, but people who are prepared to go to court and stand there and give evidence against these people. In these environments, that can be sometimes difficult with having people come forward and be prepared to give evidence in a court.
QUESTION: Commissioner, is there any scope for the Immigration Minister to step in? I know you said you need enough evidence to present to a court - can the Immigration Minister step in and cancel the visas of these guys?
TONY NEGUS: Well Mr Bowen's already indicated, I think, that he is looking to review the circumstances about how Captain Emad and others achieved their visas originally. So again, I'll leave that to the Immigration Minister and the Department of Immigration.
QUESTION: Can you say how many boats the AFP suspects may have been organised by Australian-based people smuggling syndicates that have come to Australia?
TONY NEGUS: Look, I don't have that detail, but as I said, we have more than a dozen active investigations into different syndicates who are arranging, we think, boats coming into Australia from this end.
QUESTION: Are they like - is it several boats they're arranging, or is it sort of…
TONY NEGUS: Again, look, I don't have that detail at my fingertips. But suffice to say these are syndicates, not one-off individuals. So people could draw their own conclusions from that.
QUESTION: So what sort of numbers are we talking…
QUESTION: So can I just [indistinct] go back to the AWB; I've got a double-dare question here for you. Do you recall Ross Fusca calling your office on 2 September 2010 to discuss issues raised in the newspaper reports today, and the fact that you, the Commissioner, didn't take the call?
And that on 29 September 2010 the Head of Human Resources at AFP called Ross Fusca to say there should be a Commonwealth Ombudsman investigation into the claims, but that this matter was never referred to the Ombudsman?
TONY NEGUS: Yeah, look, I'm unaware of Mr Fusca ever attempting to contact my office and I'm certainly not aware of the alleged conversation with the National Manager of Human Resources.
QUESTION: When you talk about syndicates, can you give us a sort of number of people that are involved in those syndicates?
TONY NEGUS: Look, it varies. But we - the AFP really investigate the upper-end of criminality. We're not talking about individuals here, we're talking about groups who are working in Australia, but also working internationally, where there's movements of money, there's movements of people and people are organising this as a commercial enterprise.
COMPERE: Just one or two more folks and then [indistinct]…
QUESTION: Are you disappointed that ASIO is blocking people who are found to be refugees, apparently because of links to terrorism. But people with alleged links to people smuggling seem to be able to get refugee status?
TONY NEGUS: Look, as I said, Mr Bowen's announced that he's going to review that process. I have every confidence in ASIO and in the Department of Immigration. There are literally thousands of people coming through this pipeline, as we know.
It's a very difficult job for everyone to make sure that people's human rights are respected and we deal with these people fairly and quickly. And sometimes these people can slip through the process. But again, I think the review Mr Bowen's already spoken about will help to address that.
COMPERE: Last question, last question thank you.
QUESTION: [Indistinct] Indonesian Foreign Prime Minister has expressed his disappointment in what the gentleman before was saying? Do you think this has damaged the relationship with Indonesia, or even your relationship with your counterparts over there?
TONY NEGUS: Look, no I don't think so. I think the Indonesians have expressed concern. I think one of the reasons I'm here today is to actually reassure you and the public, and our colleagues internationally, that the AFP and the Australian Government is very serious about people smuggling.
It is treated as a serious crime. There are investigations underway in this country and we are working very much collaboratively with our partners internationally. So…
QUESTION: [So you'd assume it's [indistinct] apparently impotent Commissioner? You've now got to the point where you have to watch a people - an accused people smuggler leave and you can do nothing about it.
TONY NEGUS: Well as I said in my opening remarks; we have arrested almost 550 crew members, but also over a dozen organisers in this country. We've also extradited two from Indonesia.
Yes it's frustrating, yes it's complex and yes it's difficult. But it doesn't mean we shy away from that process. And there are 14 prosecutions, either have been completed or are underway in this country, of organisers, in a similar vein that the allegations exist against Captain Ahab(*)(*).
Now, if there is sufficient evidence to be pulled together, we will go forward with the full force of the law on Mr Ahab(*), or anyone else that actually operates in this space.
QUESTION: Commissioner is there a gap in the law, or in your powers, in that a person who's under active investigation, who's the head of a people smuggling syndicate can fly out of the country and you don't have the power to keep them here while you're investigating them?
TONY NEGUS: Yeah, well let's be careful. I mean we are talking about the alleged head of a people smuggling syndicate here. We have…
TONY NEGUS: …a presumption of innocence in this country. And again, if there was sufficient information available, and evidence available, then the AFP would make an appropriate arrest.
We arrest people every day at airports attempting to flee this country. We're not frightened to do that. However, where there is insufficient information, or evidence available, then we're not going to do that against the - and contravene Australian law.
So we have to be balanced in the way we look at this. And as I said earlier, what some people will talk to Four Corners about, and present about, and what they will come to a court and give evidence about may be two different things. And we're faced with dealing with that sort of thing every day in this environment.
So I said we have to have a balanced approach to this, and as I said, we will continue to work diligently to collect evidence against people smugglers and people traffickers and we'll do that without question. But it's again, trying to find that balance between doing that and acting responsibly at the end of the day when people are leaving the country.
COMPERE: We'll wrap it up there ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much. We'll let the Commissioner go at this stage.
TONY NEGUS: Last one, last one.
QUESTION: With respect…
QUESTION: With respect though, you did say that there was no [indistinct] as you could see in the Four Corners report and you've said that - you've admitted yourself that you have to stick to the law and you've had to watch this guy who you're actively investigating as he leaves the country. So doesn't that mean there's either a gap in the law or in your current powers that you have to let a lead go?
TONY NEGUS: No, what I said was that Four Corners presented a range of quite serious allegations against this gentleman. They actually had people there who were
providing information, some of them from foreign jurisdictions in doing so.
From the AFP's perspective it's a matter of us being assured that that evidence was able to be presented in an Australian court and is admissible.
Some of the things that I saw in Four Corners would not be admissible in an Australian court, they're very serious allegations that we need to examine but they wouldn't be admissible in that context and that's the conundrum we find ourselves in. I don't think it's a - it's not a problem with the law, per se, but it's just - it's the reality of what we have in our judicial system. It's a very fair system, it's structured against: he who accuses must prove, and it protects innocent people from being arrested and this is what we're faced with. I'm sure all of you would like to make sure that that's maintained in our country.
Thank you very much.
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