A Senate inquiry has issued the Department of Immigration and Border Protection a ‘please explain’ over why it allegedly allowed a Filipino captain and self-confessed gunrunner to slip into Australia unchecked.
Senate committee chair Glen Sterle said a “gaping hole” has been exposed in national security involving foreign flag of convenience (FOC) ships.
A Senate inquiry has heard that despite an outstanding New South Wales coroner’s subpoena for the captain Venancio Salas over two deaths at sea, he was allowed to return to work in Australian waters.
The inquiry is examining the proposed wider use of FOC ships and their crew in Australian waters.
Two Filipino crew of the Japanese-owned and Panamanian-registered Sage Sagittarius, one of the world's largest coal bulk-carriers, died in Australian waters in 2012 in suspicious circumstances.
“It's a well know fact, the captain has admitted to gunrunning, if I remember rightly, organised crime and bashings and now I'd like to think that was a red flag,” Senator Sterle told officials from the department at the hearing of the Rural and Regional and Transport References Committee.
Mr Salas had previously given evidence at the coronial inquest in Sydney and then returned overseas to continue work. He denied involvement in the deaths on the Sage Sagittarius.
The coroner subpoenaed him as a key witness for a further hearing in February, but his international whereabouts were unknown.
Mr Salas only appeared after Sunshine Coast Daily journalist Owen Jacques, who has reported on the case since 2012, told the coroner’s office the captain was working on another ship back in Australian waters.
"There's a massive gaping hole here. Someone needs to be accountable,” Senator Sterle told SBS after the hearing.
“I mean what else and who else has been entering our ports? What else has been coming into our ports? Who else has gone missing? And are we sure the people that get off these ships, these foreign seafarers, are the same that get back on these ships?”
The Department of Immigration and Border Protection issued Mr Salas a Maritime Crew Visa to re-enter Australia.
Senator Barry O’Sullivan challenged Jim Williams, the department’s first assistant secretary for Visa and Citizenship Management, if there was any “active knowledge” about Mr Salas.
“I'm not aware that we had an active knowledge that he was involved in court proceedings,” Mr Williams said.
"Who else has gone missing? And are we sure the people that get off these ships, these foreign seafarers, are the same that get back on these ships?”
The department took as a questions on notice if Mr Salas’ immigration file was marked in relation to gunrunning or the subpoena.
Border Force Queensland Regional Commander Terry Price said under committee questioning he “would expect there to be a flag if there was someone to be known to be gunrunning to Australia”.
“The department notes that while a significant proportion of legitimate sea trade is conducted by ships with FOC registration, there are features of FOC registration, regulation and practice that organised crime syndicates or terrorist groups may seek to exploit,” the Department of Immigration and Border Protection said in its submission to the inquiry.
“This means that FOC ships may be used in a range of illegal activities, including illegal exploitation of natural resources, illegal activity in protected areas, people smuggling and facilitating prohibited imports and exports.”
A federal government Bill to introduce the use of flag of convenience ships on Australian coastal routes was rejected by the Senate in November but it remains on the government agenda.
"There are features of FOC registration, regulation and practice that organised crime syndicates or terrorist groups may seek to exploit.”
The Maritime Union of Australia fears if the proposed legislation is passed it will destroy the remainder of Australia’s domestic shipping industry.
“Here you've got what appear to be significant gaps in border security, yet on the other hand the government is adopting a policy where they want more of these flag of convenience vessels plying their trade on the Australian coast,” said Ian Bray, assistant national secretary, Maritime Union Australia.
A further Senate committee hearing with the department will be held in two weeks time.
“I want you to bring with you the entire file of investigation on this confessed gunrunner, I want every detail, I want every piece of paper, every communication between your people, and if the people are senior enough, I'd like you to bring them with you,” senator O'Sullivan told commander Price.
The coroner’s inquest into the Sage Sagittarius resumes later this month.
The Australian Federal Police declined to comment on investigations into the deaths due to the ongoing inquest.
This article was written by Stefan Armbruster and was originally published on SBS News