When politics plays the judge

Hadi Ahmadi.

On September 24, Australia took another step backwards.

Hadi Ahmadi, 35, was sentenced in a Perth court to a maximum of seven and a half years for assisting 562 asylum seekers to reach Australia on two boats in 2001. He was originally charged with “smuggling” 900 people on four boats, but this number was reduced during the course of the trial.

Ahmadi had been recognised as a refugee by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). After twice failing to reach Australia by boat, he turned to helping others attempt the journey.

The September 24 Australian said that, in sentencing, district court judge Andrew Stavrianou said to Ahmadi: “You were not the primary organiser ... you were a middleman.”

Stavrianou said Ahmadi was of good character and unlikely to re-offend, but he had to give a sentence that would deter other “people smugglers”.

When Ahmadi was extradited to Australia from Indonesia last year, then prime minister Kevin Rudd said his extradition “opens the way for Hadi Ahmadi to face prosecution in Australia for a range of serious people smuggling offences relating to his alleged involvement in four boat arrivals in 2001 carrying more than 900 unlawful non-citizens”.

The “unlawful non-citizens” were asylum seekers, looking for protection as they were legally entitled to do. According to the Project Safecom website, of the 900 passengers Ahmadi assisted, 866 were declared genuine refugees.

On top of the trauma and uncertainty that comes with seeking asylum, Ahmadi has languished in further insecurity since 2008. The February 25 Age said presiding Chief Judge Antoinette Kennedy was scathing about the time Ahmadi had been in custody before he even came to trial. At the request of the Australian government, he was arrested in Indonesia on June 29, 2008. He wasn’t extradited until May 26, 2010.

The July 29 Australian reported prosecution witness Waleed Sultani was brought to Australia and paid $250,000 by the Australian Federal Police in return for information on “people-smuggling”. Ahmadi’s lawyer, Jonathan Davies said Sultani was given indemnity by the AFP and granted citizenship to Australia, despite being rejected by the UNHCR.

Following the sentencing, Davies said Ahmadi hoped that “history will judge him in a far kinder light”.

He added: “Any Australian, or any other person, who provides humanitarian assistance to refugees in Indonesia may, in certain circumstances, risk prosecution in the event that assistance results in refugees gaining access to our shores.”

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