An Indian journalist could face years in jail on a people smuggling charge after allegedly helping a “fake media contingent” travel to Australia to attend the Commonwealth Games.
Australian Border Force officers detained Rakesh Kumar Sharma, 46, and eight others at the Brisbane Airport on Wednesday because his companions’ accreditation was allegedly not genuine.
The eight, aged between 20 and 37, were allegedly holding temporary activity visas and claiming to be accredited media representatives.
Mr Sharma is described in court documentation as a journalist. Prosecutors claim his accreditation was genuine but he “facilitated” the group’s travel.
The man from Haryana in India’s north appeared in Brisbane Magistrates Court on Thursday charged with an aggravated people smuggling offence, which carries a minimum five-year sentence if convicted.
The charge applies to anyone accused of smuggling five or more people and carries a maximum sentence of 20 years.
Mr Sharma is also accused of causing “false or forged” documents to be presented on behalf of his eight fellow travellers in relation to a visa application, between December 2017 and March this year.
Legal Aid solicitor Axel Beard used Google Translate to communicate with the accused as he stood in the dock during the brief hearing.
Mr Sharma was remanded in custody without applying for bail and the magistrate ordered an interpreter fluent in Hindi to be organised for the next hearing, on April 6.
The ABF confirmed the other eight had been taken into immigration detention and inquiries were continuing.
Local authorities had already been tipped off by officials in Bangkok that the group might not be genuine, the ABF said, in a statement describing the group as a “fake media contingent”.
Australian Border Force Queensland regional commander Terry Price said any attempts to exploit the Commonwealth Games and Australia’s visa program would not be tolerated.
“Anyone wishing to enter Australia, including athletes, team officials, spectators and the media, must hold a valid visa and accreditation and must be deemed to be a legitimate visitor,” he said, in a statement.
“As with all travellers, the ABF will process all Commonwealth Games visitors on arrival and anyone found not to be here for legitimate purposes can expect to have their visas cancelled and to be turned around. This may occur on arrival in Australia, or prior to boarding flights to Australia.
“We have a skilled network of Airline Liaison Officers at key overseas international airports who can identify travellers of concern and stop them travelling or, as in this case, provide real time information to alert colleagues onshore.”
Queensland Police Service Deputy Commissioner Bob Gee said Queensland police, Australian Border Force and Australian Federal Police were involved in the joint investigation.
“I have talked with the Commonwealth Games lead and there is no threat to the Commonwealth Games. In fact, what you’ll see is that the system works,” he said.
“The nation and the state are well prepared for any incident like this.”
The Commonwealth Games starts on the Gold Coast on April 4.