SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's highest court ruled on Wednesday that the detention of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka on the high seas for almost a month was lawful, a win for the government's tough immigration policy.
The High Court ruling means the group of 157 ethnic Tamils, who were picked up by an Australian customs boat last June after setting out from India, are not entitled to seek compensation.
Lawyers for the asylum seekers were disappointed with the decision, but noted it was not unanimous and said the case succeeded in drawing attention to Australia's secretive "Operation Sovereign Borders" activities.
The United Nations refugee agency, which has criticised Australia's treatment of asylum seekers, made submissions in the case.
"It took this case for the government to finally break its secrecy and confirm that it was detaining 157 people - including 50 children as young as one – on a boat somewhere on the high seas," Hugh de Kretser, executive director of the Human Rights Law Centre, told reporters.
The case also prompted the government to promise not to return the group, who are being held in a detention centre on the South Pacific island of Nauru, to India or Sri Lanka.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the decision vindicated government policies.
He said only one boat had reached Australia since the policies were implemented a year and a half ago and authorities were seeing a decrease in the number of boats attempting the perilous voyage.
"We have stopped people drowning at sea, we have stopped the boats and this government is absolutely resolved the operation will continue," Dutton told reporters in Canberra.
Australia got 16,000 asylum applications last year, just less than 0.5 percent of the 3.6 million lodged worldwide, U.N. figures show.
But it is a polarising political issue.
Conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott campaigned on a vow to "turn back the boats" before winning elections last year.
Following the High Court case, the government revised its immigration laws to reduce its obligations to follow international law and restrict the oversight of Australian courts.
The High Court's 4-3 split in favour of the government meant the judgment needed to be analysed to determine its full impact, lawyers said.
"There are points of law in which the majority agree with the minority," said George Newhouse, a lawyer for the group. "We need to distil those decisions and there may well not be a blank cheque to the government to do whatever they want to people in this position."
Editing by Shri Navaratnam, Robert Birsel