Twenty years ago, an unseaworthy and overloaded fishing boat, carrying more than 400 asylum seekers who were hoping to start new lives in Australia, sank in international waters.
The alleged people-smuggling operation of 421 people ended with 353 drownings, including 146 children, when Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel (SIEV) X, bound for Christmas Island, sank off the Indonesian island of Sumatra on October 19, 2001.
Forty-five people survived and seven eventually settled in Australia.
This week, an Iraqi man was hauled into a Queensland courtroom – the rarely used court 17, which previously hosted an inquiry into a near-fatal mining explosion – to decide whether he should stand trial for what was described at the time as the largest maritime disaster off Australian waters since World War II.
Maythem Kamil Radhi, 45, has been the subject of a four-day hearing in the Brisbane Magistrates Court, charged with one count of organising the transport of groups of non-citizens into Australia.
Police allege Radhi arranged the proposed entry into Australia of a group of five or more people on the vessel between July 1 and October 19, 2001.
He allegedly took payment from asylum seekers and organised transport and accommodation in Indonesia before taking the boat to Australia.
Radhi had been living in New Zealand with his wife and three children after being granted refugee status in 2009, before being extradited to Australia in 2019 over the SIEV X tragedy.
Among the shocking evidence heard in the Brisbane court this week was of the vessel’s water pump breaking 13 hours into the voyage, and the captain wanting to return to Indonesia.
The refugees on board offered the captain money, before resorting to threatening him and hitting him to force him to keep going.
These desperate acts were recounted to the court by Raad Lafta Zubari, who was on the boat until the water pump broke and a small boat took him and about 29 others back to shore.
“The captain didn’t want to continue the journey because he knows about the boat and the condition of the sea and the waves,” Zubari recounted.
“So, he stopped many times, but each time they tried to convince him by money, or other times they threatened him and hit him.
“After a time, the captain called a small boat, and [an estimated 30 people, including myself] left the boat. They returned to Indonesia.”
Another witness, Fawzi Al Majid – who met SIEV X organisers but did not go on the doomed vessel – detailed the cost of getting a place on the vessel.
Al Majid was asked a series of questions about an alleged meeting with Radhi by defence barrister Mark McCarthy.
“At the first meeting with Maythem, there was a conversation about a boat?”
“Of course,” Al Majid responded.
“Were you told that a boat was leaving for Australia in two days’ time and you had to give Khaleed [convicted SIEV X organiser Khaleed Shnayf Daoed] $US400 per person?”
“Yes,” Al Majid responded.
“But you refused to give Khaleed that money?”
“Yes,” Al Majid responded.
Al Majid revealed one of the reasons he did not go on the SIEV X voyage.
“It was very clear that this boat will be caught … because all of the people in that area of the city were being told that from the boat people – that the boat owned by [convicted SIEV X organiser] Abu Quassey will be caught and don’t go on it,” he told the court.
Al Majid also accused Radhi of threatening him after he gave a statement to authorities regarding the SIEV X tragedy: “They said, either you withdraw your statement, or we will kill you.”
Daoed and another SIEV X organiser, Abu Quassey, have been imprisoned for their involvement in the expedition.
In 2003, notorious Egyptian people smuggler Quassey was sentenced by an Egyptian court to seven years’ jail for manslaughter, but this was reduced to five years and three months on appeal.
Fellow smuggler Daoed was found in Sweden in 2003 and extradited to Australia for prosecution, where he received a prison sentence of nine years.
Radhi’s case will return to the Brisbane Magistrates Court on December 1.