CANBERRA, Sep 27 (Reuters) Australia secretly deported five separatist asylum seekers from Indonesia's Papua province, in what rights groups said was an attempt to appease Jakarta and avoid embarrassing its powerful military.
The men were sent to neighbouring Papua New Guinea from where they had set off in a banana boat and were intercepted near Saibai Island, to Australia's north, on August 21.
''This is an issue which raises humanitarian responsibilities that should be dealt with openly and fairly, not with secrecy and unjust laws,'' minority Australian Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett said after the government admitted the incident.
The five men, who had sought asylum as refugees, were taken to a PNG refugee camp on September 18 after the Port Moresby government agreed to re-admit them under a 2003 asylum agreement between Australia and PNG.
Independence activists in Papua - which is made up of two provinces on the western half of New Guinea island - have waged a campaign for more than 30 years to break away from Indonesia, while a low-level armed rebellion has also simmered for decades.
Rights groups accuse the Indonesian military of using heavy-handed methods to put down the revolt.
The arrival of a separate group of 43 Papuans on Australia's Cape York peninsula in January last year prompted a furious diplomatic exchange between Jakarta and Canberra.
Indonesia's government said Australia's decision to give refugee visas to all 43 amounted to backing for Papuan separatist claims of oppression by Indonesian troops and police. Jakarta ordered its Canberra ambassador home in protest.
To defuse the row, Australian and Indonesia last year signed a security pact in which Canberra said it supported Indonesian sovereignty over Papua.
A spokeswoman for Australia's Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews said the latest group were ineligible for protection because of new laws barring refugee applications from people landing on Australian islands.
''It was standard routine. They can have a claim processed in PNG, because PNG is a signatory to the refugee convention,'' she said. The men were held in detention for three weeks and two received medical treatment before being deported.
Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre spokesman David Manne said the return of the men to PNG was scandalous.
''There are serious questions about whether Australia has acted in violation of our international obligations to protect refugees,'' he told the Australian newspaper.
Bartlett accused the government of sweeping their case under the carpet to avoid a fresh row with Indonesia.
''The federal government's enthusiasm for operating under a veil of secrecy is the modus operandi for regimes the world over who treat basic human rights as an optional extra,'' he said.
REUTERS ARB RK0921