An Indonesian fisherman whose boat was wrongfully destroyed by Australian Customs officials has been awarded $44,000 by the Federal Court in a landmark ruling.
Justice John Mansfield ruled via video link from Adelaide on Wednesday that boat owner and captain Sahring, 43, was not committing an offence when a Customs vessel approached his boat in Indonesian waters in April 2008 and boarded on the suspicion that he was illegally fishing for trepang, or sea cucumber.
The seabed there, and the marine life that rests on it beneath Indonesian waters, belong to Australia.
But Sahring, from Kupang in West Timor, said his boat was strictly for catching groper and snapper.
Customs officials seized the boat and set it alight, which Sahring in a statement said caused him “immense sadness”.
Justice Mansfield found that the seizure of his boat was invalid and that no offence was committed.
Customs officials said the boat had equipment they suspected was for catching trepang. But Sahring’s lawyer Greg Phelps said he had not even begun to fish that day before he was stopped.
“I have always been a hardworking person who keeps the law… the loss of my boat and my detention in Australia has caused me a great hardship and sadness,” Sahring’s statement reads.
“My ability to take care of my family has been taken away from me and I have no way of getting a new boat without compensation.”
Justice Mansfield awarded Sahring $44,000 in compensation for the destruction of his boat, for the loss of income, and for some of the three months he was detained in a Darwin immigration centre.
However, he also found it was not unlawful for Customs to take Sahring and his crew to Australia once their boat had been destroyed.
Lawyers for Sahring had been seeking $300,000 for false imprisonment and damages for his destroyed boat, they told AAP.
The compensation ruling – the first of its kind – has implications for other Indonesian fishermen accused of illegal fishing in Australian waters, Mr Phelps said.
“Many of the fishermen are struggling because they lost their fishing craft,” he told reporters.
“I know Sahring’s children have been out of school for four years. I know that when this decision reaches him he’ll be able to put his children back to school and he’ll be able to provide for his family again.”
Justice Mansfield released only his findings on Wednesday. The reasons for his decision will be published later this week.