CANBERRA, Australia – Three Indonesian men were charged with people smuggling after a rickety boat they were on smashed into cliffs along a remote Australian island in December, killing an estimated 48 people, Australian police said Tuesday.
The men are accused of trying to smuggle the 90 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 a government report on the tragedy was released. 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 were scheduled to appear in Perth Magistrates Court later Tuesday.