The United Nations may become involved in the case of the Tamil asylum seekers who were detained on an Australian customs boat, with a court hearing to take place in Canberra in October.
A brief high court directions hearing in Melbourne on Thursday resulted in Justice Kenneth Hayne setting a date of 14 October and 15 October for the full court case.
The legal team representing the asylum seekers indicated that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Australian Human Rights Commission were looking to intervene in the case.
George Newhouse, a lawyer for the asylum seekers, said the UN and other human rights organisations were “following the case very closely”.
“What Australia does on the high seas does affect international law and the approach of other countries,” he said. “It’s likely we’ll see intervention from human rights organisations both here and internationally.
“It would be highly unusual for the United Nations to intervene in a high court case in Australia. It shows the high level of concern internationally over Australia’s treatment of vulnerable men, women and children. This is a very serious case where 157 people were effectively abducted on the high seas and that’s not the behaviour the United Nations wants to see.
“This case is about the legality of holding people prisoner like this and, furthermore, the legality of putting them on little red lifeboats and pushing them off to a third country.”
Newhouse said it was important to have clarification from the court about any limits to the government’s powers on the high seas.
“There are important and untested questions at the heart of the case which, given the government’s policy of boat turnbacks, may well have broader implications,” he said.
Legal action was originally launched to prevent the asylum seekers being returned to Sri Lanka earlier. However, the Australian government moved the people to a detention centre in Western Australia and then on to Nauru.
In July the UNHCR expressed “profound concern” over reports the asylum seekers were being sent back to Sri Lanka. It later emerged the group was intercepted after leaving Pondicherry in India.
The asylum seekers may seek financial compensation from the Australian government due to their detention, but any claim would run separately from the current high court challenge.
The legal team also expressed concern about the manner in which the asylum seekers were transferred to Nauru.
The Human Rights Law Centre has spoken directly to a number of the asylum seekers. Its director of legal advocacy, Daniel Webb, said he was deeply concerned about the group’s wellbeing and the circumstances in which they were forcibly and secretively transferred offshore. (The Guardian)