End of the line for notorious Captain Bram

Lauren Farrow – AAP

3 minute read

Indonesia's notorious people smuggler Captain Bram was paid huge sums to take migrants by sea to Australia and New Zealand before he was finally caught.

JAKARTA: When Indonesian officials finally captured notorious people smuggler Captain Bram in 2016, they were lauded for bringing down a key player in a dark and deadly trade.

Bram, whose real name is Abraham Louhenapessy, had been at the centre of two high-profile journeys involving hundreds of asylum seekers.

The first left more than 250 Sri Lankans stranded aboard a leaky boat for six months off Indonesia's coast after then-Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd personally asked Indonesia to stop the vessel from travelling south.

The second was stopped by Australian authorities who allegedly paid more than $US30,000 (26,600 euro) in cash to the vessel's captain and crew to turn back.

A self-described entrepreneur, Bram is said to have helped more than 1500 people reach Australia by boat since 1999.

In 2007, he was arrested and spent almost two years behind bars for immigration offences.

But within months of his release, he was caught again in October 2009 aboard the boat crammed with Sri Lankans later stranded off Indonesia.

The Sri Lankans said they paid Bram up to $US9000 (8000 euro) each to organise the journey to Australia.

A lack of people-smuggling laws in Indonesia at that time and authorities' failure to tell the court that Bram had previously been jailed for a similar offence meant he walked away with just a 25 million rupiah (about 2000 euro) fine.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankans spent months in squalid conditions aboard the boat, fearing detention or deportation. Dozens fled ashore and the rest were eventually sent to detention.

Fast forward to February 2015 when Bram was approached by Sri Lankan man Vishvanathan Thineshkumar, also known as Kugan, to help organise a smuggling boat to Australia.

Bram told Kugan that Australia was "no longer possible" as a destination.

By that time, Australia's navy was intercepting and turning back smugglers' boats before they could reach its territorial waters, while the government was vowing never to resettle anyone who arrived by boat.

And so the destination was changed to New Zealand.

Bram was given about 1.5 billion rupiah (100,300 euro) to organise the boat and hired another man to recruit a captain and crew.

Each of the 65 asylum seekers on board paid about $US6000 (5300 euro) and they set off from Central Java on April 30, 2015.

But they never made it to New Zealand, with one asylum seeker on the vessel later telling Amnesty International the boat was intercepted at sea by an Australian vessel.

He claims he saw the boat's captain meeting with the Australians, and of seeing the captain accept and pocket a thick white envelope.

Other asylum seekers describe being transferred off the smuggling boat into cramped, hot cells aboard the Australian ship.

Kugan's and Bram's later trials in Indonesia heard Australian officials paid $US32,000 (28,450 euro) to get the crew to turn around.

Bram, who was not on board, was captured in Jakarta in September 2016.

In March 2017, the 56-year-old was jailed for six years under Indonesia's relatively new people smuggling laws.

A year earlier Kugan, who was responsible for recruiting the migrants, was sentenced to five and a half years in jail.

Prosecutor Alexander Sele said it was the first time he had prosecuted anyone higher up the people smuggling chain, and that the conviction demonstrated improved co-operation and communication between Indonesian authorities.

"(Before) it was only for the crews who got caught. Now for this Captain Bram case, it has reached higher (within the network)," he said.

The Australian government still will not confirm or deny allegations it paid the captain and crew of the smuggling boat to turn back.

"I don't have any public comment to make in relation to the allegation," Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said in March.

However, the government would do "whatever is within Australian law" to stop people arriving by boat.