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Australian prime minister backs down on jail threats as India travel ban backlash intensifies

Scott Morrison, Australia's prime minister
Scott Morrison, Australia's prime ministerBrendon Thorne/Bloomberg

The backlash intensified Tuesday to Australia’s threat to jail or fine citizens fleeing India, prompting Prime Minister Scott Morrison to play down the risk of penalties after a former cricket star accused him of having “blood” on his hands for abandoning thousands of Australians in the coronavirus-hit country.

The government’s announcement that citizens returning to Australia after recently spending time in India could face five years in jail, a $50,000 fine, or both has sparked criticism from across the political spectrum.

Doctors have demanded the policy be reversed. Advocates argue it violates human rights. Legal scholars say it probably runs afoul of the law. Political opponents have dubbed it "racist." Several members of Morrison's conservative coalition government have come out against it. And even right-wing columnists have slammed the sanctions.

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But perhaps the most strident criticism came from former cricket star Michael Slater, who was commentating on Indian Premier League cricket matches when an Australian ban on flights from the South Asian country went into effect last week.

"If our Government cared for the safety of Aussies they would allow us to get home," Slater tweeted on Monday. "It's a disgrace!! Blood on your hands PM. How dare you treat us like this. How about you sort out quarantine system. I had government permission to work on the IPL but I now have government neglect."

Slater was reportedly able to leave India — where daily coronavirus cases have topped 300,000 for almost two weeks — for the Maldives, but will not be allowed back into Australia for another two weeks, under the new rules.

Morrison called Slater's accusation "absurd" but appeared to back down on the threat to jail or fine Australians fleeing India.

"I think the likelihood of anything like that occurring is pretty much zero," Morrison told Australia's Nine Network on Tuesday morning, saying the country had yet to jail anyone under emergency biosecurity powers that went into effect last year. "So, I think people need to look at this in perspective."

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The prime minister said the threat of jail or fines was to protect Australians by preventing people who have recently spent time in India from circumventing the flight ban and coming to Australia via a third country. A pair of cricket players had done just that, flying from India to Australia via Doha, Qatar, before the sanctions went into effect on Monday.

Penny Wong, a senior figure in the opposition Labor Party, said Morrison's latest comments suggested the jail threats were politically motivated.

“If there is zero chance of these penalties being imposed, is the only reason you announced it to get a tough headline that has now blown up in your face?” she said to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

In a sign of just how badly those headlines have gone, even conservative columnists have slammed the conservative prime minister over the threatened sanctions, which were announced shortly after midnight on Friday.

“To me, it stinks of racism to tell the 8,000 Indian Australians trying to come home that they must stay in India,” Andrew Bolt wrote in the Herald Sun. “I can’t believe we would impose such a travel ban on white Australians fleeing from, say, England.”

"This is not a left/right thing," tweeted Janet Albrechtsen, another conservative columnist. "It's a free/unfree thing."

Before the India ban, Australia already allowed in only citizens, residents, and a few other select groups. Only about 5,500 are permitted entry each a week, and they must quarantine in a hotel for 14 days at their own expense. The approach has resulted in tens of thousands of Australians being stranded abroad, about a quarter of them in India.

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Morrison has said the India ban was prompted by a sevenfold increase in the percentage of travelers from India testing positive for the coronavirus at a quarantine facility near Darwin, in northern Australia. The government has announced plans to expand the facility.

Morrison said on Tuesday that he is confident repatriation flights from India would begin after May 15.

For Australians stuck in India, that may not be soon enough.

In a letter urging the government to implement the India travel ban, Australia's chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, admitted the measure came with risks including "serious illness without access to health care, the potential for Australians to be stranded in a transit country, and in a worst-case scenario, deaths."

"I'm trying to get out of here as soon as I can," said Mandeep Sharma, an Australian citizen stranded in India after flying there a month ago for his father's funeral.

“If COVID doesn’t kill us, probably stress will,” he told ABC’s 7.30. “Personally, I’m very devastated with this announcement. I feel disowned by my own government. I’m an Australian citizen.”