SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia promised on Tuesday not to return a boatload of asylum seekers to Sri Lanka without providing 72 hours notice, a move hailed by human rights lawyers as a minor victory in a case that has raise concerns about the country's tough immigration policy.
An emergency High Court hearing over the fate of 153 asylum seeker intercepted at sea by Australian authorities was adjourned after that pledge to allow the government to discuss the next steps with lawyers acting for the asylum seekers.
Human rights lawyers brought the legal challenge following the interception and return on Sunday of 41 other Sri Lankan asylum seekers on a separate boat by Australian authorities.
Sri Lankan police said on Monday those 41 would be charged with leaving the country illegally and any found guilty would face "rigorous imprisonment", raising fears about rights abuses.
Tuesday's hearing about the interception of a second boat has revealed details of the operation, undercutting the government's attempts to maintain a veil of secrecy over its so-called "Operation Sovereign Borders" tough immigration policies.
Lawyer Justice Gleeson, acting for Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, told the court the group was intercepted 12 miles from Australia and outside the country's migration zone. They are now on an Australian navy vessel on the high seas, he said.
Lawyer Ron Merkel, representing 40 of the 153 asylum seekers, said the group were all Tamils and included several children, including a 2-year-old.
Merkel, who said all the group's communications had been removed, argued that they had been denied procedural fairness by not receiving a proper assessment of their claims to asylum.
"This is the government's intent ... to involuntarily and by coercion return the 50 plaintiffs ... to Sri Lanka against their will," Merkel told the court.
Merkel said the key issue was whether the Migration Act allowed the government to hold the asylum seekers at sea. Gleeson, however, said the Migration Act did not apply because the group was picked up in the contiguous zone outside Australia's territorial waters.
Gleeson did not provide any detail on how or why Australian authorities boarded the boat and transferred the group to the navy boat.
Prior to the government's promise to provide 72 hours notice of any transfer, the judge overseeing the emergency hearing, Justice Susan Crennan, indicated she was inclined to put the case before the full High Court.
She granted the lawyers an hour's adjournment to negotiate on the next steps. A temporary injunction against Australia handing over the asylum seekers is still in place.
(Reporting by Jane Wardell and Byron Kaye; editing by Nick Macfie)