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Last Updated: Friday, 3 February 2006, 09:25 GMT
Papua asylum seekers 'tortured'
A senator from Australia's governing coalition has said a group of refugees from Indonesia's Papua province appear to have a genuine asylum claim.

Barnaby Joyce, who met the group at an Australian offshore immigration centre, said they recounted how they had been jailed and tortured and relatives shot.

The 43 Papuans arrived in Australia by boat in January.

Indonesia's ambassador to Australia has warned that granting them asylum could strain relations between the countries.

"It certainly would have an effect. That's why we have to manage this together and find a solution," Teuku Mohammad Hamzah Thayeb told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio on Friday.

Mr Joyce, from the National Party, said he only had the Papuan group's word that they had faced rights abuses, but he had no reason to doubt them.

"There is documented cases of members within their families being shot. There's certainly on the record experiences of them being jailed and tortured, so I think they seem they would be under... risk if they went back ," he told ABC.

Mr Joyce said one of the reasons for their treatment could be their religion. Christians, as this group are, have clashed repeatedly with Muslim migrants from elsewhere in Indonesia.

Mr Joyce is known to have strong Christian beliefs.

Diplomatic strain

Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone said the group had not yet officially applied for refugee status, but would be given "a fair hearing" if they filed an asylum claim.

Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Yuri Thamrin has said that Australia risks attracting a wave of boat people from Papua if it granted asylum to the group.

Mr Thamrin has also said that accepting their claims of abuses "could strengthen perceptions in Indonesia that there are parties in and around (Australia) who support or express sympathy for separatism".

The Papuans reportedly include leading pro-independence activists from Papua.

Indonesia gained sovereignty over Papua - a former Dutch colony - in 1969.

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