Amnesty International used full-page ads in Australian newspapers on Thursday to accuse border protection officials of illegally paying people smugglers and endangering lives in their efforts to prevent asylum seeker boats from reaching Australia.
The London-based human rights group's extraordinary advertising campaign in Australia's largest cities of Sydney and Melbourne followed the release of a report on Wednesday condemning the government's highly secretive Operation Sovereign Borders, a flotilla that has all but stopped asylum seeker boats.
The government has rejected the report and denied any wrongdoing.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who counts stopping the boats among the greatest achievements of the government he led for two years until September, used a speech in London this week to urge Europe to employ similar methods to stem the flow of migrants.
Amnesty claims that Australian officials were "complicit in a transnational crime" in May when they paid people smugglers $32,000 to take a boat carrying 65 asylum seekers bound for New Zealand to an Indonesian port. Amnesty said this could constitute illegally funding human trafficking.
"Our Australian officials operate in accordance with domestic Australian law and in accordance with our international obligations," Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told reporters..
Australia's Fairfax Media reported in June that an Indonesian police investigation had concluded smugglers had been paid more than $30,000 to take a boat loaded with asylum seekers back to Indonesia.
Government ministers at the time denied that the Australian Border Force and defense officials ever paid money to people smugglers. But that denial did not extend to intelligence officials, who are understood to pay criminal informants for information. The government says it never comments on intelligence or security issues.
Don Rothwell, an Australian National University expert on international law, said that if Australian officials had paid traffickers, they had broken the law.
However, if the money was paid by intelligence officers, the attorney-general would have to authorize any prosecution under Australian law, he said.
"The potential for prosecutions under Australian law ... would appear rather remote," Rothwell said.
Amnesty also accuses Australia of endangering 65 asylum seekers by forcing them from a well-equipped boat onto overcrowded boats with inadequate fuel for their journey back to Indonesia.
Among other allegations, Amnesty said that Australian officials beat asylum seekers when turning their boats back toward Indonesia.
Thousands of asylum seekers have flown from Africa, Middle East, Central and South Asia to Indonesia to board rickety fishing boats for the voyage to Australia.