Asia-Pacific

'People smuggler' charged over Christmas Island tragedy

Shipwreck off Christmas Island, Australia (15 Dec 2010)
Image caption The boat carrying the asylum seekers went down in high seas just off Christmas Island

Australia has charged a man with 89 counts of people smuggling over the shipwreck tragedy at Christmas Island.

Iranian-born Australian citizen Ali Khorram Heydakhani appeared in court in Sydney after being deported from Indonesia earlier in the day.

The 40-year-old was denied bail and will be tried in Western Australia.

Up to 50 asylum seekers are believed to have died when their boat smashed into rocks off Christmas Island on 15 December last year.

Australia has an offshore immigration processing centre on the island.

Coastguards rescued 42 survivors - mainly Iranian, Iraqi and Kurdish asylum seekers - and recovered 30 bodies from the sea.

It is thought that up to 20 more people remain unaccounted for.

'Prosecute and punish'

The group were making their way to Australia via Indonesia. Mr Heydakhani was arrested in Indonesia on 25 January.

The 89 counts relate to three other operations as well as the Christmas Island incident.

Three men who were on board the boat have already been charged with "facilitating the bringing to Australia of a group of five or more persons".

Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor said Australia would continue to work with regional partners "to frustrate, prosecute and punish those who seek to make a profit by endangering the lives of others".

"Those people who seek to lure, in some cases people who are desperate, into unseaworthy vessels where people's lives are at risk, where people perish, will be punished," he said.

More than 1,700 asylum seekers are currently detained at Australia's offshore processing centre on Christmas Island.

The island lies in the Indian Ocean about 2,600km (1,600 miles) from the Australian mainland, but only 300km south of Indonesia.

Australia says it wants to deter asylum applicants from journeying to Australian waters by boat.

It has recently agreed a deal with Malaysia to send 800 "boat people" for processing there, and is reported to be in discussions with the government of Papua New Guinea over the possible reopening of the Manus Island detention camp.

That camp was used as part of the John Howard government's "Pacific solution" - a policy that the current government pledged to end when it took power.

More on this story