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AFP won’t apologise for ‘agonising decision’ in Bali Nine arrests

The Australian Federal Police has hit out at misreporting that the Bali Nine were unknown to authorities before the tip-off from the father of one of those arrested — but won’t apologise for making operational decisions based on what they knew and the guidelines at the time.

Australian Federal Police commissioner Andrew Colvin was joined by deputy commissioners Mike Phelan and Leanne Close as they held a press conference today — one week after the execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran — to discuss the AFP’s role in the arrest of the Bali Nine.

Colvin acknowledged that many in the Australian community “are angry at the AFP for our perceived role”:

“It is not necessarily my intention to convince the public to agree with the decisions that we made in 2005. Policing is difficult, and it involves making very difficult decisions.”

Colvin said the scenario could happen again, and protecting the population from the drug trade required working with partners in the region who are sometimes sources and transit countries for illicit goods into Australia. The commissioner implied that the Bali Nine would have been arrested even without the tip-off of Lee Rush, father of one of the nine arrested, Scott Rush:

“At the time we were working with a very incomplete picture. We didn’t know everybody involved, we didn’t know all the plans, or even what the illicit commodity was likely to be. We were not in a position to arrest any of the members of the Bali Nine prior to their departure from Australia.

“At this time AFP consulted and engaged our Indonesian partners and asked for their assistance. It was operationally appropriate and it was consistent with the guidelines as they existed then. I can assure you if we had enough information to arrest the Bali Nine before they left Australia, we would have done just that.”

He hit back at the public commentary on the AFP doing its job, enforcing the law and protecting the lives of Australians affected by the drug trade:

“Decision like this aren’t taken lightly. They’re agonising decisions. Police officers have to make difficult decisions each and every day. They’re made by individuals whose motivations and intentions are to protect the community from crime and to protect the community from those who would do us harm.

“I also have an obligation to the men and women of the AFP to ensure that their reputation is taken care of and public references to blood on our hands, to shopping the Bali Nine in exchange for some conspiracy, cartoons depicting the AFP as the firing squad or the grim reaper are not only misinformed and ill guided, they are in my view in very bad taste.

“Police naturally have thick skins. You wouldn’t be a police officer if you didn’t have a thick skin. But they also have friends and family who read and see those types of headlines, those types of comments, and are influenced by them. Let’s not forget that police are members of the community as well and they are also human beings.”

Lee Rush has spoken of his deep regret of his decision to go the AFP with his concerns about his son.

Deputy commissioner Mike Phelan said Scott Rush was already placed on a travel alert, due to prior known links to a drug syndicate, and that alert was triggered when he presented himself at customs on April 8, 2005. The AFP did not alert Rush he was being watched as they wanted to net the whole drug syndicate, Phelan explained.

Phelan disputed reporting that the AFP took the tip-off from Lee Rush and then promised Scott Rush would not be allowed to leave the country. “This is simply not true,” Phelan said:

“At no time during these conversations did the officer promise that Scott Rush would be stopped from travelling to Bali, nor did he have the ability to stop him. If Scott Rush’s father or his lawyer acting on his behalf had never made contact with the AFP, we would still be in exactly the same position we are today.”

Phelan added that “not one bit” of the information that came from Scott Rush’s father made its way to Indonesia, but prior arrest in Australia was not possible as there was insufficient evidence to prove a charge of conspiracy. The decision on the day was his, Phelan said, something he has agonised over the past ten years.

“Yes, I knew full well by handing over the information and requesting surveillance, if they found them in possession of drugs they’d take action and expose them to the death penalty. I knew that. But I weighed up a number of things in my mind as to what I thought was appropriate and I’ve agonised over it for 10 years now. And every time I look back, I still think it’s a difficult decision, but given what I knew at that particular time and what our officers knew, I would take a lot of convincing to make a different decision. It was not easy.”

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.