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Ordeal set to end for Merauke Five
Tom Allard and Karuni Rompies, Jakarta June 11, 2009

THE five Australians who have been stuck in the remote Indonesian town of Merauke for nine months have been cleared and are free to return home after the country's Supreme Court yesterday upheld an earlier court decision to release them.

William Scott Bloxam, his wife Vera, Hubert Hofer, Keith Mortimer and Karen Burke had planned a three day sightseeing trip to the Papuan town of Merauke, making the one hour flight from Horn Island in Torres Strait in September last year.

But, because they didn't arrange visas or get a special security clearance to land in the sensitive region, the short holiday turned into a nightmare.

The five had been held in immigration detention before being sentenced to between two and three years in prison for immigration violations.

After a successful appeal to Jayapura High Court, they were exonerated and told they were free to go. But a few days later, prosecutors, under instruction from Jakarta, launched an appeal to the Supreme Court to get the guilty verdicts reinstated.

That appeal was rejected yesterday.

Members of the so-called Merauke Five declined to comment yesterday, saying they wanted to hear the decision officially.

As revealed in a series of exclusive reports in The Age, Mr Scott-Bloxam informed Indonesian authorities of their lack of visas and security clearances while en route to Merauke, but was told to land anyway.

The Australians were assured everything would be "OK" and they could return to Horn Island as planned after three days if they paid a fine. The fine almost $US4000 was paid and local officials expected the Australians to be allowed to leave.

But the matter was taken over by Jakarta following the intervention of then national police chief Sutanto, according to Merauke's immigration chief Freddy Manus.

The prosecution of the case was driven by the Attorney-General, Hendraman Supandji, according to the lead prosecutor Yafeth Bonai.

Mr Supandji also ordered a travel ban be placed on the five Australians.

Prosecutors made submissions to the Supreme Court, highlighting Australia's practice of burning and sinking Indonesian fishing boats illegally entering Australian waters, in a bid to show how the fate of the Merauke Five became ensnared in broader diplomatic frictions.

In 2006, Indonesia withdrew its ambassador to Canberra after Australia granted asylum to 42 Papuan separatists.

Australian diplomatic efforts failed to ensure the swift release of the Australians, despite boasts by the Rudd Government that the relationship between the two nations has never been stronger.

It was only after The Age drew attention to the case, and the Merauke Five spoke extensively of their ordeal, that the Supreme Court fast-tracked its deliberations.

Govt 'pleased' with release of Papua five
June 11, 2009

The federal government has welcomed news that five Australians held in West Papua for the past nine months have been given the green light to return home.

The Queenslanders - pilot William Scott-Bloxam, his wife Vera, and passengers Keith Mortimer, Hubert Hofer and Karen Burke - were arrested last September for entering the sensitive Indonesian region without visas or flight clearance.

Mr Scott-Bloxam was sentenced to three years' jail, and the others to two years.

Their convictions were overturned on appeal earlier this year, and they were ordered to return to Australia.

However, they were banned from leaving while prosecutors appealed to the Supreme Court, extending their ordeal by three months.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected the appeal, clearing the way once again for the group's return.

The federal government on Thursday said the news was welcome.

"The government welcomes the news that the five Australians have resolved their case with the Indonesian authorities and will be able to return to Australia," a spokesperson for Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said.

"We are pleased that, with their lawyer, they have been able to resolve this matter and that they will soon be back with their families."

AAP

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