The immigration department made a conscious decision not to issue an alert for a self-confessed gun runner wanted for questioning after captaining a so-called “death ship”, a Senate hearing was told.
Three seamen died – one man vanished overboard, another fell down a staircase, and the third was crushed to death on a conveyor belt – in August and September 2012 on the Japanese coal carrier Sage Sagittarius.
Two of the deaths are the subject of a NSW coroner’s inquest.
The immigration department had the ship’s captain, Filipino national Venancio Salas Jr, who is a person of interest, on its radar since 1994 through border exit and entry encounters, a Senate inquiry was told on Wednesday.
But there was no specific alert against Salas, even though he had been working on another ship for eight months off the Australian coast.
“In this case, on the basis of the information in our own holdings on this individual we made the assessment that we did not need to put an alert on this individual,” department official Adam Meyer told the hearing.
Border Force Queensland regional commander Terry Price argued that there was intelligence that his team can access to make assessments independent of alerts.
“There has not been an alert per se on this individual, however it doesn’t ordinarily mean we’re not interested,” he said, pointing out that Salas had been subject to a search and questioning in January this year when he arrived into Gove.
The hearing was told the department only placed an alert on Salas on February 16 this year, because of a subpoena to the NSW coronial inquiry.
Committee chair Glenn Sterle pointed out that on that day Owen Jacques, a journalist from Maroochydore covering the coronial inquest, alerted the counsel assisting that Salas was arriving into Weipa during a break in proceedings.
“How can we have all these agencies and nobody talking to each other?” Senator Sterle said.
“I don’t accept the premise that there was a breakdown (of communications),” immigration department official Jim Williams said.
“With respect, to say nobody knew he was here was not correct, because we do get a report he’s here.”
Government senator Barry O’Sullivan slammed immigration officials during the hearing for withholding top secret intelligence about the case.
Senator Sterle also expressed his frustration at the officials: “I’m trying to think of the right words without swearing.”
“We’re not sitting down at the corner pub chucking a few darts, thinking how we can solve the problems of the world over a few Carlton Drys – we have asked some serious questions in terms of national security.”
The flag of convenience inquiry was sparked after an ABC Four Corners episode about the case of the Panama-flagged “death ship”, Sage Sagittarius.