The Man Who Gambles With Human Cargo

The man who gambles with human cargo

The Age
October 24, 2009

CAPTAIN Bram isn't worried. He knows people-smuggling is not an offence in Indonesia. ''Don't worry, I'll be free in a few months and will be able to help you again,'' Bram told Sri Lankan asylum seekers after taking their life's savings and duping them on an ill-fated voyage in a creaking, 30-metre wooden cargo boat to Australia's Christmas Island.

Smooth-talking Bram is the face of the usually hidden men who are making a fortune gambling with the lives of thousands of desperate people seeking a better life in a new country.

His real name is Abraham Lauhenaspessy. The 47-year-old is a conman from Ambon with links to a brutal criminal network at Jakarta's main port.

A couple of kilometres away from where Bram is idling away his time in a cell at a navy base on Merak harbour in West Java, 254 Tamils and one Burmese man are jammed on to the boat moored at a wharf, refusing to come ashore until they see a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The Indonesian Government, worried about their country becoming a major transit point for asylum seekers, is refusing their demand and has prevented UNHCR officials going to the boat.

Some Indonesian officials are also talking about the need to force the group, who include pregnant women and children, from the boat and to deport them to Sri Lanka to send a strong signal to other asylum seekers.

The thousands of asylum seekers reportedly waiting for the opportunity to get on a boat to Australia in Asia have no choice but to the deal with Bram and men like him in several other highly organised people-smuggling syndicates that have agents in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, Britain and Switzerland, police say.

They show no compassion for their human cargo who pay them on average $US15,000 ($A16,200) for their passage to Australian territory, where they tell them they will be quickly accepted as refugees.

On Bram's latest of many boats he has organised or attempted to organise to reach Australia since 1999, he gave the 255 people on board little food and water and had stored only 18 life jackets. The boat was barely seaworthy. Its engine broke down and the boat drifted in heavy seas for five days before mechanics among the asylum seekers managed to repair it. The asylum seekers were given one packet of instant noodles a day and one bottle of water between four people for the 10 days they were at sea.

Alex, the spokesman for the Tamils on board, said they had to eat the noodles dry because there was not enough water to cook them in.

''We cleaned our teeth and washed in salt water conditions were very bad despite that we paid them all that money,'' Alex said by telephone from the boat.

With only one toilet aboard, people have to queue for hours to use it, including pregnant women and children.

Alex said he had information that an ethnic-Tamil people-smuggler in Australia was playing a key role in the surge of asylum-seeker boats leaving Malaysia for Australia. He said the man had the nickname ''Sekar''.

''He runs a highly organised network,'' Alex said.

Bram turned Alex's boat around into the path of an Indonesia navy ship on October 11 after he missed a rendezvous with a smaller boat he intended to transfer to.

It was to save his own skin. Lauhenaspessy faced up to 20 years' jail if he was apprehended in Australian territory.

But in 2007 in Jakarta he was sentenced to two years' jail on a hotchpotch of minor charges relating to providing protection for people who had entered Indonesia illegally.

The charges related to the smuggling of more than 70 Sri Lankans into Australia earlier that year. He was free in less than 20 months and spent his time in jail planning other smuggling operations, police believe.

Lindsay Murdoch is Darwin correspondent.