A big drug bust in Tonga and asylum seekers on Nauru face riot charges | Pacific Beat

A big drug bust in Tonga and asylum seekers on Nauru face riot charges

A big drug bust in Tonga and asylum seekers on Nauru face riot charges

Updated 16 November 2012, 18:45 AEDT

Tongan police have seized 200 kilograms of cocaine from a yacht that ran a ground 10 nautical miles from the nukulofa several days ago.

A decomposed body was also found on board.

The collaborative operation to track down the drug haul involved authorities from Tonga, Australia, the Cook Islands and United States.

Authorities held a press conference in Canbarra and our correspondent Stephanie March was there.

Presenter: Richard Ewart

Speaker: Stephanies March, Australian Federal Police Acting Assistant Commissioner, David Sharpe, Cook Islands Police Commissioner, Maara Tetava

MARCH: It's quite extensive. We found out that earlier this year, the US drug authorities provided some information to Australia that they found a group that was planning to use 13 metre boat loaded with cocaine, to transport cocaine to Australia. Now that boat departed Ecuador, in South America, on the 20th. August, and then they got further information the boat would enter the Cook Islands waters, so they told the authorities in the Cook Islands who monitored the boat until October 5th, when it lost contact with it, and then an alert was sent out to what's known as the Pacific Trans National Crime Network that links nine countries throughout the region and because of that alert, the Tongan authorities found the boat washed up about, as you said, ten nautical miles off Nuku'alofa, on November 5th. Tongan authorities, police and navy went out and found a decomposed body on the boat and also 204 one kilogram blocks of cocaine in the hull. Now Australian Federal Police Acting Assistant Commissioner, David Sharpe, said the operation was a great example of the global reach of law enforcement.

SHARPE: Whilst, we can state that those drugs were not destined for Tonga or the Cook Islands. Tonga and Cook Islands paid an integral part in this investigation, which started in South America and can I say that the seizure of the 204 kilograms of cocaine has successfully stopped approximately 116 million dollars worth of cocaine reaching Australia's shores.

EWART: That's Acting Assistant Commissioner, David Sharpe, from the Australian Federal Police.

Now Stephie, mentioned a body was found onboard. Do the authorities know who that person was and was anyone else found on board?

MARCH: The body was badly decomposed is how the police described it and the initial post-mortem couldn't determine the cause of death, so as a result they also don't know the identity of the man. US authorities say that they think that there were two men on board the boat when it left South America and that they know who those two men were, but that the crew may have changed on its journey between Ecuador and where it was picked up in Tonga. The AFP were asked if the second man may have been thrown overboard or had got of the boat at an earlier stage and they said they're not sure of his whereabouts, that's something that they're still investigating.

EWART: Now, it's not the first time that this particular network has been used to foil a drug smuggling operation?

MARCH: That's right. Over the past two years, there've been three similar seizures like this one. One of the recent ones on occasion where 400 kilograms of cocaine, which is double what was found today was seized coming from Vanuatu under the cover of a yacht race, so it's a pretty big issue for the region and AFP's David Sharpe says the impact of these shipments reaching Australia would be pretty serious for the Australian community.

SHARPE: Well, I think the health implications of 116 million dollars worth of cocaine, 200 kilos are quite significant when you look at it, but if you couple it with the fact that , this is the fourth vessel since 2010 targeting Australia, so that's a total of 1.1 tonnes of cocaine on four yachts that have been stopped reaching the shores of Australia. So you can only the imagine the health implications of that had it reached Australia is significant.

EWART: David Sharpe there, from the Australian Federal Police. Bearing in mind, what we've been told today Steph. What sense do you get of how vulnerable this part of the world is to drug trafficking?

MARCH: Well, it seems quite vulnerable in the sense that the Pacific's a good staging point for drug runners leaving South America to stock up or resupply. Obviously the Pacific's really sparse, it's quite remote and you can easily travel through there theoretically undetected, although obviously law enforcement agents are developing these very extensive networks. And it's not so much an issue for the Pacific countries, because that's not where the drugs are headed. The drugs are destined for Australia. So as a result, Australia does provide support to the Pacific countries. One part of the support is called the Pacific Patrol Boat Program, where Australia funds 19 patrol boats in the region, and helps with the crews and the training.

Cook Islands Police Commissioner, Maara Tetava was also at the press conference and he says while drug running isn't a problem for his country, he's really happy to help Australia on this one.

TETAVA: We could possibly seen as a soft spot in the big picture of trans national crime. I've only got a small police service, but in this particular question, I was quite pleased to have been able to support the whole operation.

EWART: Cook Islands Police Commissioner, Maara Tetava, speaking there in Canberra.

Now Steph, on another topic, we've had news come through that more asylum seekers have been charged with riot-related offences on Nauru. A breaking story. What can you tell us about this?

MARCH: That's right, that information has just come through. Another 13 asylum seekers have been charged over some damage that allegedly occurred at the centre in September. If you recall, there was damage to some tents and some electrical equipment to the value of about $24,000. Now two asylum seekers were charged several weeks ago, so this brings the total number to 15. They're facing offences, including riot, riot injuring building and wilful damage. Now, they'll appear in court on Monday and the maximum penalties for those offences range from two to seven years in prison, so they're quite serious.

I spoke earlier to Nauru's Police Commissioner and he said that he doesn't expect anymore charged will be laid, but obviously we'll learn more about what happened on Monday when the 15 men appear in court in Nauru.

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