Australia committed crime in paying smugglers for boat turnbacks, Amnesty claims

Amnesty International has slammed Australia’s secretive Operation Sovereign Borders as a “lawless venture” that should be fully exposed through a royal commission.

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A new Amnesty report, entitled By Hook or By Crook, was released on Thursday, a day after former prime minister Tony Abbott – who used the expression to describe the controversial strategy – encouraged Europe to adopt it.

The report claims from interviews with asylum seekers, a boat crew and Indonesian police that in May, Australian officials paid $US32,000 to six crew who were taking 65 asylum seekers to New Zealand, to get them to return to Indonesia instead.

Amnesty also questions whether Australian officials paid money to the crew of another boat turned back in July.

Author Anna Shea says the actions of the Australian Navy and Border Force amount to transnational crime.

In effect, she says, they directed a people-smuggling operation, paying a boat crew and then instructing them on what to do and where to land in Indonesia.

Amnesty wants a royal commission to look into whether criminal activity took place, as well as asylum seekers’ claims of ill treatment at sea.

“Australia appears willing to do absolutely anything to stop people seeking asylum from reaching its shores,” she told AAP.

“The idea that the ends justify the means is extremely concerning.”

In the July 25 incident, Amnesty found Australian officials intercepted a boat and separated the two Indonesian crew and 15 passengers on a Border Force ship for a week.

The passengers told Amnesty that when they were put on to a different boat and sent back to Indonesia’s Rote Island on August 1, the boat’s crew acted differently and had two new bags.

When they threatened to open the bags, the Australians repeatedly told them not to.

Ms Shea says all available evidence indicates that turnbacks are not saving lives, but endangering them.

“What’s equally concerning, central to the Australian approach to border control is secrecy, which means that abusive and dangerous practices appear to be happening without any kind of legal or democratic scrutiny,” she said.

“When governments say that `on water matters’ are exempt from public scrutiny, in effect they are saying that they can do anything they like.

“This is a very dangerous and profoundly undemocratic idea, and must not be replicated in Europe or elsewhere.”

Saturn moon ‘plume dive’ searches for signs of life

Only a drop of water will be collected during the 30,600 kph flyby.

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Scientists say that will be enough to answer some key questions about Enceladus, which has a global ocean sealed beneath its icy surface.

“This is a very big step in a new era of exploring ocean worlds in our solar system bodies with great potential to provide oases for life,” said Curt Niebur, program scientist for NASA’s Cassini mission at Saturn.

The spacecraft does not have instruments to directly detect life, but scientists hope to ferret out details about the underground ocean that is believed to be the source of Enceladus’ geyser-like plumes. Scientists suspect tidal forces are keeping the ocean liquid.

Cassini discovered the plumes, which stretch hundreds of miles into space, in 2005, a year after reaching Saturn.

During repeat flybys of Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth-largest moon and just 310 miles (500 km) in diameter, scientists confirmed that the moon holds a slightly salty, liquid ocean beneath its crust.

Saturn, a gaseous planet and the second-largest in the solar system, is about nine time the size of Earth and is the sixth farthest from the sun.

During Wednesday’s flyby of Enceladus, which will take place just 30 miles (50 km) above the moon’s active southern polar region, scientists hope to make chemical measurements of the plume that will allow them to determine if the moon has hydrothermal vents on its sea floor.

Similar superhot, perpetual-night deep ocean habitats on Earth support a wide variety of life.

Cassini, which is due to end its mission in 2017, will make a final flyby of Enceladus in December.

Rivals Saudi Arabia, Iran to discuss Syria face-to-face for first time

Saudi Arabia said it aimed to gauge during the talks the willingness of Iran and Russia, the main backers of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government, for a peace deal, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said on Wednesday.

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“The view of our partners … was that we should test the intentions of the Iranians and the Russians in arriving at a political solution in Syria, which we all prefer,” al-Jubeir told a news conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and three of his deputies will travel to Vienna, Iranian state news agencies said. It will be the first time that Tehran has been represented in international discussions on the Syrian crisis.

Iran says it supports a political solution in Syria, but says Assad should be part of the process. Opposition groups, and their regional backers including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, say Assad must leave power as a precondition for peace.

Al-Jubeir said Saudi Arabia and its allies would hold a separate meeting on Friday to seek “the time and means of Bashar al-Assad’s exit”.

The White House said the peace talks could only work if “all key stakeholders” were invited, adding that Iran’s participation should not overshadow the efforts to end the Syrian crisis.

“The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict in Syria,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters.

Egypt, Iraq, Qatar, Lebanon, the European Union and France also said they would attend Friday’s talks, which come a day after a smaller round of negotiations between the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Around a dozen participants are expected in total.

It was not clear whether any invitation had been issued to either the Syrian government or the opposition. Neither side was present at the last talks in Vienna.

Two most powerful countries

Speaking at a news conference in Riyadh with his Saudi counterpart, British foreign minister Philip Hammond said he hoped the meeting would encourage dialogue between the rivals, who back opposing sides in conflicts across the Arab world.

“Saudi Arabia and Iran are the two most important and powerful countries in this region. It is very much in the long-term interests of the region that eventually these two countries are able to talk to each other, are able to discuss differences, are able to seek solutions peacefully,” Hammond said.

The Syrian National Coalition, an opposition group based in Turkey and backed by Western powers, said Iran’s participation in the talks would undermine the political process.

“Iran has only one project – to keep Assad in power … They don’t believe in the principle of the talks,” said the coalition’s vice-president Hisham Marwa.

The secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, told reporters during a visit to Pakistan that Tehran would join the Syria talks “with no pre-conditions”.

A senior Western diplomat in New York said on Wednesday: “We have got to start from a fairly low base given that you’ve got Russia and Iran on one side and everyone else on the other.”

“It would be successful if (the meeting) came off and didn’t completely fall apart,” he added.

Turkey, which backs the anti-Assad opposition, has no objection to Iranian participation in the Syria talks, a diplomatic source in Ankara said. Turkish foreign ministry officials were not immediately available for comment.

Iran’s first test

Fighters from Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah are currently taking part in ground offensives being waged by the Syrian army and its allies with Russian air support.

Revolutionary Guards Deputy Commander Hossein Salami said in an interview on state TV on Monday that Iran had increased its military presence in Syria in recent months to help its army in response to a request from the Assad government.

An Iranian political analyst based in Frankfurt, Ali Sadrzadeh, said: “Iran was always saying that without it the talks on the Syrian crisis would not succeed. What has changed is that Russia and the United States have come to the same conclusion.”

He said the July nuclear deal between Iran and world powers paved the way for Tehran’s participation in the international arena, adding: “The Vienna talks will be Iran’s first test.”

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who will take part in the talks, welcomed Iran’s participation. After a phone call with the Iranian foreign minister on Wednesday, she tweeted: “Important to have all relevant regional actors at the table on Friday in Vienna.”

“This is an acknowledgement of reality, four years into the conflict,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London. “Having Iran at the table complicates the goal of getting rid of Assad, but potentially opens the door to some kind of de-escalatory track.”

Some analysts suggested compromise remained far off.

Karim Sadjadpour, senior associate at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said: “There are no tangible signs that Iran is prepared to abandon Assad, or sees a way to preserve its interests in a post-Assad Syria.”

“Iran has consistently argued that Syria’s future is a choice between Assad and the jihadists.”

Patrick Clawson, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the idea that external actors were key to producing a political solution was misplaced.

“The difficulty we face is that the involvement of Iran is only going to inflame the opinion, the attitudes of some groups in Syria,” he said.

Austria hopes border barriers will slow migrants

Austria has largely served as a conduit into Germany for hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern, African and Asian migrants fleeing wars and hardship who have traveled from the Mediterranean and through the Balkans since early September.

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But as the southern German province of Bavaria, which borders Austria, has complained increasingly stridently to Berlin that it is reaching the limits of its capacity to receive refugees, concern in Austria has risen that Germany could further restrict arrivals, creating a backlog.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere accused Austria on Wednesday of driving refugees to the German border after dark, suggesting it was doing so to help them cross undetected, and he said he expected Vienna to return to an orderly process immediately.

Shortly before de Maiziere’s remarks, Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said Austria was planning to build barriers at the Spielfeld border crossing with Slovenia through which several thousand migrants pass daily.

Having criticized the government of neighboring Hungary for building razor-wire border fences to keep migrants out, Austria was at pains to explain that the Spielfeld barriers it was planning would be much more limited and were not comparable to those of Hungary.

“We want to be able to carry out controls on people, and for that one needs certain technical security measures,” Faymann, a Social Democrat, told reporters after a weekly cabinet meeting.

No open invitation policy 

His coalition partner, Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner, a conservative, said another aim of the measure was to discourage migrants from coming.

“Slowly word will spread among the refugees that individual states do not have a form of invitation policy but are at the limits of their capacity and are carrying out tougher controls and security measures,” Mitterlehner said.

Speaking in Kosovo, Austrian President Heinz Fischer said his country had handled refugee crises before though it was now facing an influx the likes of which the Alpine nation of 8.5 million people had never experienced. “We are reaching the limits of our capacity,” he said.

Austria announced tougher border controls last month but since then it has largely refrained from implementing them when large groups of migrants have arrived.

“I expect, firstly, that the flow will thin, which is an advantage, and, secondly, that it will be lower overall,” said Mitterlehner.

The flow of migrants shifted this month after Hungary fenced off its border with Croatia, prompting those trying to reach Germany to transit Slovenia rather than Hungary.

Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner, who on Tuesday announced the plan to introduce “technical barriers”, told ORF radio on Wednesday that it would involve erecting a fence.

Faymann, who has been particularly critical of right-wing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, likening his treatment of migrants to Nazi-era deportations, defended Austria’s measures.

“We are not fencing Austria in,” Faymann told a news conference after a weekly cabinet meeting, adding the plan, which had yet to be finalised, did not involve barbed wire.

“This is not about a border barrier of several kilometers,” he said, adding technical experts would determine the shape and size of the barriers.

Finance News Update, what you need to know

WORLD FINANCE UPDATE:

The Australian dollar has broken below 71 US cents after the US Federal Reserve kept its near-zero benchmark interest rate unchanged.

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At 0630 AEDT on Thursday, the currency was trading at 71 US cents, down from 71.20 cents on Wednesday.

And the Australian share market looks set to follow European and US stocks higher at the open, after the Federal Reserve held tight on its near-zero interest rate but said the US economy is growing moderately.

At 0645 AEDT on Thursday, the share price index futures contract was up 42 points at 5,348.

ELSEWHERE:

WASHINGTON – The Federal Reserve has kept its near-zero benchmark interest rate unchanged but said the US economy is growing moderately on the back of “solid” consumer spending and business investment.

FRANKFURT – German car giant Volkswagen has booked its first quarterly loss in 15 years in the wake of the global pollution-cheating scandal which also forced it to lower its full-year forecasts.

LONDON – British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline has posted rising third-quarter earnings and revenues, buoyed by sales of HIV drugs and its asset swap deal with Swiss peer Novartis.

THE HAGUE – Dutch brewing giant Heineken has posted a 7.5 per cent rise in global beer sales for the third quarter, boosted by warm summer weather in Europe and high-profile sponsorships.

BRUSSELS – The world’s biggest brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev and its takeover target, British rival SABMiller, have agreed to extend the massive offer by a week to allow for further discussions.

LONDON, Oct 28 AFP – Britain’s state-rescued Lloyds Banking Group has posted mixed earnings as the lender set aside more cash to compensate customers who were mis-sold insurance.

TOKYO, Oct 28 AFP – Toshiba says it will sell its image sensor business to Sony, as part of a wider overhaul in the wake of a huge accounting scandal.