COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – A Sri Lankan court has released dozens of asylum seekers who were detained after Australia intercepted their boat and sent them back to their home country.
Five alleged traffickers, including a Sri Lankan policeman, who were among the 41 people were still being held. The 27 others were accused of illegally leaving the country and released on bail. Nine children were also freed.
The Sri Lankans were intercepted by Australia's border patrol off the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean in late June, according to Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison. On Sunday, they were handed over to the Sri Lankan government after their refugee claims were assessed at sea and rejected.
Morrison arrived in Sri Lanka on Wednesday for talks and the commissioning of two Australian patrol vessels given to Sri Lanka for surveillance against illegal migration.
One of the asylum seekers, Damith Kaldera, said he was beaten up by an Australian officer and forced to kneel after he protested the alleged mistreatment of the migrants. He said he acted as their spokesman because he spoke English.
Kaldera, 48, said the group set out from Batticaloa, a city on Sri Lanka's east coast, with the intention of going to New Zealand. Each asylum seeker paid 150,000 rupees ($1,150) to people smugglers, with the promise of paying another 450,000 rupees ($3,460) after finding a job in New Zealand, he said.
But the asylum seekers were intercepted by Australian coast guard officials, who took them farther out to sea and kept them there for a week without enough food and other essentials, Kaldera said.
A spokesman for Australia's immigration minister did not immediately return messages seeking comment on the allegations Wednesday.
The Australian government promised at a hearing Tuesday not to hand over another group of asylum seekers to Sri Lanka without three days' notice following a court challenge and uproar from human rights groups. Refugee advocates and human rights agencies argued that the asylum seekers could face persecution in their home country.
Lawyers representing some of the asylum seekers on the latest intercepted boat went to the High Court to stop the 153 people on board from being returned. They are currently being held on an Australian customs vessel.
The court hearing marked the first time the Australian government acknowledged the second boat's existence, and Morrison has not said where or when that boat was intercepted.
The hearing has no impact on the 41 Sri Lankans who were already repatriated.
Sri Lanka has arrested at least 4,300 people trying to migrate to Australia since 2009, according to the Sri Lankan navy.