Cambodian sting nets a big fish
Mark Baker
The Age
31 August 2002

A bit of international skulduggery has delivered a kingpin in the people-smuggling racket. Mark Baker reports from Phnom Penh.

It was a typical Saturday night in the rowdy restaurant of the Golden Temple Hotel and Casino in the Cambodian port city of Sihanoukville. Few of the patrons would have paid much attention to the five Pakistani and Indonesian men and their Cambodian guests who sat chatting over a meal and drinks.

They had been there for over two hours when, about 12.30am, the man who called himself Naeem Ahmad Chaudry finally sealed the deal, passing a bag with $US40,000 cash ($A73,000) to police and immigration officers sitting opposite.

A few minutes later Mr Chaudry and his associates were under arrest and on their way to prison as a "sting" operation hatched weeks earlier by Australian and Cambodian police hit home.

At almost the same moment, a few kilometres off the coast of Sihanoukville, three Cambodian patrol vessels intercepted a fishing boat packed with 241 Afghans and Pakistanis, and detained the seven-man Indonesian crew. The boat was just half an hour into its perilous voyage to Australia.

It was not until several days later, as Australian Immigration Department investigators combed through documents seized from the arrested men, that the extent of the success of the operation was revealed.

They discovered that Naeem Ahmad Chaudry was in fact Hasan Ayoub - the 33-year-old Pakistani Australian authorities accuse of being one of the top five or six "snakeheads", or people smugglers, running the rackets that sent boat people from Indonesia to Australia before the Tampa incident helped torpedo the trade a year ago this week.

A senior Cambodian official told The Age: "It was only when the Australian immigration compliance officers cross-checked the papers that we discovered we had captured one of the most wanted people smugglers in the region. When we realised it was Ayoub everyone was surprised and delighted."

This week, Mr Ayoub prepared to embark on the next leg of his own long journey to Australia, when a court in Bangkok granted his extradition to face a potential 20-year jail sentence - the first leader of a regional smuggling syndicate set to be tried in Australia.

While Mr Ayoub has two weeks to appeal, the Thai court found there was ample evidence to send him to Australia.

The bust in Sihanoukville, in July last year, was the icing on the cake of the Federal Government's tough new strategy to answer the boat-people crisis.

It closed a potentially dangerous pipeline for people trafficking into Australia at the same time as authorities were embracing the controversial "Pacific solution" to stop movements though Indonesia.

The Cambodian operation also revealed the extent to which Australian Federal Police and immigration officers have been able to disrupt smuggling networks with the cooperation of local police agencies.

Sources in Cambodia have confirmed that a strategy hatched by Australian officials, with the help of police and immigration authorities in both Phnom Penh and Bangkok, ensured Mr Ayoub's expected delivery into Australian hands.

After being jailed for five months in Phnom Penh for using fake travel documents, the man who says he is an innocent carpet trader was set to released last December and deported.

Australian officials - who wanted to see Mr Ayoub face 13 charges for his alleged role in sending two boatloads of asylum seekers to Australia in December, 2000, and April last year - were hamstrung by the lack of an extradition treaty.

Cambodian police delivered the solution. Mr Ayoub was issued a temporary travel document and an air ticket to Pakistan. Then, on December 18, while awaiting a connecting flight, he was arrested in the transit lounge in Bangkok. Thai officials, acting on a warrant issued by the Australian Federal Police, detained him pending Monday's extradition order.

"We told him that everything was arranged and he thought he was going home," said a senior Cambodian official. "He got a big surprise: he had no idea there was someone waiting for him in Bangkok."

A combination of luck, intelligence and close cooperation led to the success of the Sihanoukville operation.

In April last year, Australian officials alerted Cambodian authorities to a possible first attempt to smuggle asylum seekers to Australia via the remote and largely unpatrolled coast of southern Cambodia. They reported that an Indonesian boat was believed to be heading for Cambodian waters.

About the same time, Australian officers running customs and immigration training programs at Phnom Penh airport noticed unusual numbers of Afghans and Pakistanis arriving in small groups.

The first confirmation that a smuggling operation was under way came when a member of Mr Ayoub's syndicate approached a local police commander and offered him $40,000 to allow a boatload of Afghans and Pakistanis to depart from Sihanoukville. The offer was declined and authorities in the capital were alerted.

A taskforce of police, immigration and maritime surveillance officials was established with the support of Australian Federal Police and immigration officers. According to Cambodian sources, it was agreed that further contacts should be sought with the smugglers to set up the "sting", and the Australians argued that arrests should not be made until the boat was ready and all ringleaders were rounded up.

In late June - after the Indonesian fishing boat was first sighted off the coast - a senior immigration officer in Sihanoukville was approached by a member of a local criminal group linked to the smugglers and offered the $40,000 to allow the operation to proceed unhindered. This time, the offer was accepted.

By the night of July 7 when the final dinner meeting at the Golden Temple Hotel was fixed, officials had comprehensively infiltrated Mr Ayoub's syndicate. Agents posing as helpers were even on the fleet of minibuses that brought most of the asylum seekers from Phnom Penh and assisted them to board the fishing boat just before midnight. [emphasis added]

A few hours earlier, Cambodian officials placed a call to the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh and a team of Australian police and immigration officers drove to Sihanoukville to assist once the arrests were made.

"We wanted to arrest them earlier, but the Australians insisted that they needed both the smugglers and the crew of the boat, so we did it that way," said a senior Cambodian official. [emphasis added]

The outcome delighted the Australian Government. "This has put an enormous hole in the operations of the smugglers," said Australian ambassador Louise Hand.

But at least one shark has slipped the net. The Indonesian skipper of the fishing boat was discovered to be Abraham Louhenapessy - better known as "Captain Bram", a notorious figure also wanted by Australian authorities for earlier people smuggling operations out of Indonesia.

"In the beginning the Australians didn't realise he was a big fish and by the time they asked us to help have him extradited it was too late to do anything," said a Cambodian official. Eventually released after intense lobbying by the Indonesian embassy in Phnom Penh, Captain Bram is now safely back in Indonesia.

[cf: Swoop thwarts new people-smuggling plot]

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