Australia’s High Court ruled Wednesday that the nearly month-long detention of 157 ethnic Tamils from Sri Lanka aboard a sea vessel last year was legal under the government’s Marine Powers Act.
The narrow 4-3 decision means that the detainees, of whom 50 were children, will not receive damages for their alleged false imprisonment, according to the judgment summaries.
Hugh de Kretser, executive director of Australia's Human Rights Law Centre, which formed part of the Sri Lankans' legal team, expressed his disappointment with the decision.
“Incommunicado detention on the high seas is a clear breach of Australia’s international human rights obligations," he said in a statement. "Unfortunately, today’s decision confirms that our domestic law allows the Government to breach those obligations."
Liberal Party MP Scott Morrison, who held the post of immigration minister when the Sri Lankans were detained, tweeted his approval of the decision.
The Sri Lankans had boarded a boat in India last June but were intercepted 16 days later in the Indian Ocean by an Australian customs ship.
After weeks of being held on the ship, the group was transferred to the Curin detention center in Western Australia because the Indian government said they would consider taking them back, according to Reuters.
When the group refused to meet with Indian officials, they were moved to another immigration center, this time on the tiny South Pacific island nation of Nauru, where they will remain until their status as refugees is decided.
The ethnic Tamils were heading to Australia to claim refugee status, claiming they had a well-founded fear of persecution in Sinhala-majority Sri Lanka following the end of the island-nation's bloody civil war in 2009.
The case highlights Australia’s controversial immigration policy in which immigrants are often processed at offshore camps in Papua New Guinea, Christmas Island and Nauru.
Canberra says the restrictions are in place for the safety of immigrants risking their lives to reach its shores by sea.