Australian authorities have charged three Indonesians with people-smuggling over a shipwreck that killed about 50 asylum seekers last month.
The three Indonesian men were aboard a wooden fishing boat that crashed into rocks on Christmas Island in December. They appeared in court in the western city of Perth Tuesday to hear the charges against them.
The wreck threw scores of people, including children and babies, into the rough seas.
The passengers were Iranians, Iraqis and Kurds who hoped to seek asylum in Australia. It is thought they had paid smugglers thousands of dollars for passage by boat from Indonesia.
Forty-two people were rescued, and 30 bodies were recovered, but authorities say the bodies of up to 20 others may never be found.
Police say the maximum penalties for trafficking charges are 20 years' imprisonment and a $219,000 fine.
An Australian customs report released this week said that border protection and military personnel did everything they could to save lives after the wreck.
One key question was why the vessel was not intercepted before it reached the coast.
Rear Admiral Tim Barrett, a senior border protection commander, says there was no indication that the boat was heading into Australian waters.
"What I need to see as the commander of Border Protection Command is the ability to know when a vessel has left so that we can determine where we need to be to be able to respond,” Barrett said. “And in this particular case we had not seen or not heard any information that would point to a specific departure of this boat, or an arrival time at Christmas Island. So it's as simple as that, we had no information on which to base our response."
Australia has announced that a new land-based radar surveillance system will be tested, on Christmas Island, to try to prevent similar disasters.
A surge in illegal sea arrivals over the past year has again made immigration a potent issue in Australian politics. Conservative groups argue that the Labor government has softened border controls, encouraging asylum seekers to risk their lives travelling by boat to Australia.
The government, which says conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka fueled the increase, has suggested creating a regional refugee transit center in East Timor to stem the flow.
Australia grants visas to about 13,000 refugees under international agreements each year. But those who enter illegally are held in detention facilities while their asylum applications are processed. The largest such facility is on Christmas Island.