SYDNEY: A High Court barred Australia Monday from handing back a boat carrying 153 asylum-seekers to Sri Lanka, a day after Canberra returned another vessel to Colombo following a week of secrecy.
The interim injunction from a late-night sitting applies at least until a hearing resumes Tuesday afternoon and was granted after lawyers argued the transfer was illegal.
Refugee advocates claim the asylum-seekers have been deprived of the ability to have their claims for refugee status properly assessed, with their screening reportedly being carried out at sea via video link.
Lawyer George Newhouse said they were "entitled to have their claims for protection processed in accordance with Australian law."
"The asylum-seekers claim that they are fleeing persecution and that they're at risk of death, torture or significant harm by Sri Lankan authorities," he told Australian Associated Press.
"The minister cannot simply intercept their vessel in the middle of the night and make them disappear."
Concern had been mounting over the fate of two boats reportedly intercepted by the Australian navy in Australian waters late last month.
There were claims that Australia could be breaking international law in the way it screened the passengers and by returning them involuntarily to a country in which they had a fear of persecution.
The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR expressed "profound concern" about the situation.
After a week of stonewalling, Canberra confirmed earlier Monday that one boatload of 41 Sri Lankans who attempted to reach Australia were handed back to Colombo Sunday.
Under its policy of not commenting on "operational matters," Canberra has yet to confirm whether the second vessel, carrying 153 people, even exists.
Newhouse told the ABC reports that Sri Lankan authorities would press criminal charges against the group which has already returned were "shocking."
"That strengthens the urgency of the court application, because if this government is putting those people at risk of criminal charges, imprisonment and torture - because that's what happens in Sri Lankan prisons - then these people need assistance urgently," he said.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has yet to comment on the injunction, but the government has said it was abiding by international law.
He said earlier Monday that the 41 people sent back were "subjected to an enhanced screening process... to ensure compliance by Australia with our international obligations under relevant conventions."
Only one person, a Sinhalese Sri Lankan, may have had a case for asylum but he opted to return voluntarily with the rest of the passengers, Morrison added.
His other option was being sent to Papua New Guinea or Nauru for offshore processing, with Australia no longer processing boatpeople on its territory.
Of those returned at sea to Sri Lankan authorities just outside the port of Batticaloa, 37 were Sinhalese and only four were Tamil, according to the minister.
"At no stage was the vessel in distress and all persons aboard the suspected illegal entry vessel were safe and accounted for," he said.
The asylum-seekers on the second boat reportedly fled Sri Lanka to a refugee camp in India before heading to Australia.
The Tamil Refugee Council has claimed at least 11 of those on board have been tortured by Sri Lanka's intelligence services.
Labor opposition immigration spokesman Richard Marles slammed the government's operation.
"Australia's international obligations are reliant upon a credible processing system and we have deep concerns about how that could have been performed by video link at sea in a way which gave an individual assessment, when all the time the boat was steaming towards Sri Lanka," he said.
The injunction comes ahead of a visit to Colombo this week by Morrison for talks on illegal immigration. He is due to meet top officials from President Mahinda Rajapakse's government.