Amnesty International has called for a full public inquiry into reports Australian officials paid people smugglers to turn back boats carrying asylum seekers, saying it had evidence to back the claim denied by the Australian government.
In a new report released on Wednesday, the rights group says that lives of asylum seekers were endangered on two occasions in May and July when their boats were pushed back.
Australia has adopted a hardline policy vowing to stop asylum seekers reaching its shores, turning boats back to Indonesia when it can, and holding asylum seekers in camps in South Pacific island nations such as Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
Related: The going rate for a boatload of asylum seekers
But this policy came under renewed fire in June when a boat captain and two crew members arrested on suspicion of human trafficking, told Indonesian police that Australian officials paid them to take their vessel with 65 asylum seekers on board back to Indonesia.
The Australian government denied reports of paying the smugglers but the incident sparked a parliamentary inquiry and concern from Jakarta and the United Nations.
Amnesty said it had now interviewed all the adults on the boat and the six crew members who told its researchers that Australian officials paid them $32,000 to turn back the vessel with asylum seekers from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar.
The rights group also said officials from two Australian ships - one from the navy and one from the border force - later moved the passengers and crew onto two boats and gave them a "little fuel", a GPS device and a basic map, putting lives at risk.
In its report Amnesty also called for an investigation into a second case of possible payment to a crew on July 25.
"All of the available evidence points to Australian officials having committed a transnational crime by, in effect, directing a people-smuggling operation, paying a boat crew and then instructing them on exactly what to do and where to land in Indonesia," said Amnesty refugee researcher, Anna Shea.
"People-smuggling is a crime usually associated with private individuals, not governments - but here we have strong evidence that Australian officials are not just involved, but directing operations," she said in a statement.
Amnesty urged Australia to hold a royal commission, a formal public inquiry, to investigate allegations of criminal acts committed by government officials, and also called for independent monitoring of border control operations.
Operation Sovereign Borders
The group has taken out advertisements in two Australian newspapers on Thursday, calling on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to launch a Royal Commission into payments to people-smugglers.
| Australia: Paying off people smugglers?
An immigration ministry official said the Australian government has repeatedly denied all the allegations in the Amnesty report.
People on intercepted vessels are "held lawfully in secure, safe, humane, and appropriate conditions" by Australian Border Force (ABF) and Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel, a government spokeswoman said.
"To suggest otherwise, as Amnesty has done, is to cast a slur on the men and women of the ABF and ADF," a spokeswoman for the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.
"Operation Sovereign Borders is conducted consistent with Australian domestic law and Australia's obligations under international law."
In August, Australia's Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said authorities had turned back 20 boats in the previous 18 months and stopped 633 people from arriving in the country.
Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation