CANBERRA, Australia – Australian authorities charged three Indonesian men with people smuggling after their rickety boat smashed into cliffs along a remote Australian island in December, killing an estimated 48 people aboard, police said Tuesday.
The men are accused of trying to smuggle the Iraqi, Iranian and Kurdish asylum seekers on board the wooden boat into Australia. If convicted, they could face up to 20 years in prison and a 220,000 Australian dollar ($220,000) fine.
The charges come one day after the release of a government report on the tragedy. The report found that Australian authorities acted appropriately during attempts to rescue the boat passengers in treacherous seas off Christmas Island on Dec. 15.
A total of 42 people were rescued from churning surf after the boat broke apart on the rugged island in the Indian Ocean where the Australian government has an immigration detention center. The bodies of 30 victims were recovered, but government officials estimate another 18 people also died.
Australia is a top destination for asylum seekers hoping to start new lives after escaping from poor, war-ravaged countries. In recent years, many refugee hopefuls from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Myanmar have flown to Indonesia and then continued on to Australia by sea, in rickety, jam-packed boats that have few provisions and no safety gear.
Asylum seekers who are intercepted by officials are generally sent to the Christmas Island detention center, or detention centers on the Australian mainland.
The three men charged appeared in Perth Magistrates Court on Tuesday. Abdul Rashid, 60, Hardi Han, 22, and Supriyadi, 32, did not enter pleas but acknowledged they understood the charges against them. They did not apply for bail and were returned to custody after the hearing. Their next hearing is scheduled for Feb. 15.
"They're very unhappy," attorney David McKenzie, who is representing the men, told reporters outside court. "It's a total tragedy and they're very upset."