A bare few miles inside Australian waters, the dark nearly absolute, a small fishing vessel sat low in the ocean, waiting to be boarded by the Australian navy.
Maikel Husa, a slightly built boy of just 15, was among those watching as the patrol boat approached.
Husa had been deceived. He left his village on Sulawesi for Java on the promise of paid work transporting goods. The captain instead took on 58 asylum seekers, destined for Australia.
When they were intercepted north of Ashmore Reef, in the dying hours of New Year’s Eve 2009, one of first things the Australians asked him was his age.
Husa, afraid and far from home, told them he was a child.
“I said I was born in 1994,” he recalls.
He would soon tell immigration officials and federal police the same thing.
Husa told the Australians he just wanted to go home. That’s exactly where he should have been sent, according to federal police policy on juvenile people smugglers.
Instead, he would spend years behind bars in maximum security prisons in Australia, held as an adult aged 19.
Husa is one of dozens of children, some as young as 13 when they were detained, who were wrongly prosecuted as adult people smugglers using deeply flawed evidence to show how old they were. The boys were jailed in Western Australia’s adult correctional system before being released years later and quietly sent back to Indonesia.
On Tuesday, Husa and five others won a remarkable victory.
Despite the passage of more than a decade since their conviction, they argued successfully for the WA court of appeal to hear their cases and quash their convictions, overcoming a refusal by the former attorney general Christian Porter to refer them for a fresh appeal.
“I can say there were systemic failures at every step for these children,” their lawyer, Mark Barrow, of Ken Cush & Associates, says. “In the end, the six acquittals stand as truth of the injustices.”
The court found a “substantial miscarriage of justice had occurred” and found that, without the X-ray evidence, all six boys would “not have been charged as an adult”.
The court said commonwealth prosecutors now acknowledged their earlier reliance on the wrist X-ray technique “gives rise to a serious doubt about the integrity” of the convictions and left “no reliable evidence” to sentence the boys as adults.
“The Crown has conceded that a miscarriage of justice was occasioned by each of the convictions; the judgments of conviction should be set aside; and judgments of acquittal should be entered,” the court said.
The case has done much more than simply clear the boys’ names.
It has exposed hundreds of pages of internal records, which for the first time reveal the full story of Australia’s shocking conduct, including the extent to which police knew there were questions about the accuracy of the evidence they were using to prosecute the children as adults.