FREEDOM came and went in the blink of an eye yesterday for two Indonesians who have been incarcerated for the last 21 months, after a jury took less than five hours to find them not guilty of aggravated people smuggling.
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As soon as they had been escorted from the County Court into the sunshine of William Street, they were whisked into a van and taken to the Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre to await deportation.

The news was conveyed by Victoria Legal Aid’s Sarah Westwood by phone to the remote village of Itterung in South Sulawesi, where the elder son of Sore, one of the accused, expressed the hope his father might be home in time for Eid al-Fitr, the holiday to mark the end of the Islamic month of Ramadan.

”They are the victims, not the perpetrators, and I’m pleased that the jury understood that,” said Carolene Gwynn, the barrister who represented Sore, 42, a widower and farm worker who left school after grade five.

The pair are the first of 48 Indonesian boat crew to be tried in Victoria this year for aggravated people smuggling – an offence that carries a mandatory five-year prison term for those found guilty.

”This is a verdict that keeps our faith in the jury system,” said Michael Cahill, who represented the younger accused, 24-year-old Rustam, whose only possessions were the jeans and T-shirt he was wearing when the boat was intercepted in November 2010 – and whose formal education ended in grade two.

It is also a verdict that raised questions about the costs of charging those with minor roles in transporting asylum seekers to Australia – and whether it is a help or a hindrance in bringing the ”Mr Bigs” of people smuggling to justice and reducing the risk of deaths at sea.

More than 140 Indonesians are being prosecuted across Australia and 198 are serving prison terms after being convicted in other states. To prove guilt, the Crown must demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that they knew their intended destination was Australia and that their passengers might not have a lawful right to enter the country.

Both men were described by their lawyers as members of a people smuggling ”B-team”, who were kept in the dark about their destination and left to care for the 59 passengers and face arrest when members of the ”A-team” left after fixing the engine during the journey.

In an interview that was not admissible as evidence, Rustam had told immigration officials on Christmas Island that he thought their destination was an ”island”, and that he believed the trip was ”halal”, or legitimate, Mr Cahill said.

The pair’s first reaction to the verdict was one of bewilderment, which later gave way to tears.

Ms Gwynn said she spent more than four hours trying to explain how the trial would unfold to Sore before it began a fortnight ago, but that both of the accused struggled to follow what was happening throughout.

Aside from the language barrier – and the fact there is no Indonesian word for ”jury” – they were fasting for Ramadan and struggling with the cold, which made listening to the interpreter more difficult, she said.

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