Court orders Australian government to let Afghan refugees land
SYDNEY, Sept 11 (AFP) - A court Tuesday ordered the Australian government to bring to Australia more than 430 asylum seekers sailing across the Pacific after being barred entry following a high seas rescue two weeks ago.
In a major setback to the government, Federal Court judge Anthony North upheld a suit brought by civil libertarian lawyers challenging Canberra's refusal to allow the mostly Afghan asylum seekers to set foot on Australian soil.
However, the government swiftly announced with opposition support that it would appeal the decision, and said the refugees would remain on board an Australian troopship sailing them to Papua New Guinea until the appeal was decided.
A packed court broke into spontaneous applause as North announced his finding that the asylum seekers had been illegally detained by the Australian government aboard the Norwegian freighter the Tampa after it rescued them from a sinking ferry off the Indonesian coast on August 26.
The asylum seekers should be returned and allowed to land on mainland Australia by 5:00 p.m. (0700 GMT) Friday unless an appeal is lodged by then, the judge said.
"An ancient power of the court is to protect people against detention without lawful authority," North added.
"Where complete control over people and their destiny is exercised by others it cannot be said that the opportunity offered by those others is a reasonable escape from the custody in which they were held."
North said it had been established the asylum seekers had been detained after 45 Special Air Services troops boarded the Tampa off Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean and ruled that that detention was unlawful.
"They procured the closing of the harbour so that the rescuees would be isolated, they did not allow communication with the rescuees, they did not consult with them about the arrangements being made for their physical relocation or future plans," he said.
Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said the government disagreed "very strongly" with the ruling. "We believe that the decisions that were taken all through this on advice on advice from Commonwealth officers have been lawful," he added.
Under a deal brokered by Australia in the face of international outrage at the refugees plight, the tiny Pacific island of Nauru and New Zealand have agreed to take them in.
The refugees were transferred to the Australian troopship the Manoora and have been heading for Papua New Guinea, to board planes for Nauru and New Zealand where their claims are to be processed under UN criteria.
The deal meant none of them were to set foot on Australian soil, and Prime Minister John Howard's uncompromising stand against illegal immigration and people smuggling won him overwhelming domestic support, despite the international condemnation.
Tuesday's verdict came as no surprise, as the court has a history of overturning government rulings on refugee cases.
But the fate of the refugees was Tuesday uncertain, as they remained in limbo on board the troopship.
On Sunday another 237 mainly Iraqi refugees were plucked from another Indonesian boat trying to sail to Australia and also boarded on the Manoora. It was not immediately clear how the court ruling affected the second group.
Nauru was meanwhile Tuesday busy preparing for the arrival of the refugees and President Rene Harris confirmed they would accept 520. The rest would go to New Zealand.
A Nauru government spokesman told AFP he was surprised by the court ruling.
"I think we'll wait and see when the official notification comes through and what that will mean for Nauru," Chris Hawkins said.
The tiny, virtually bankrupt South Pacific island nation of Nauru has agreed to become a transit zone for Australia's unwanted boatpeople in return for a 20 million dollars (10.3 million US) aid package.
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