Thursday, November 13, 2008

Free Lex Wotton – political prisoner

By Kathy Newnam

A 400-strong rally was held in Brisbane on November 1 as part of the campaign to free Lex Wotton, an Indigenous community leader from Palm Island, who was found guilty on October 24 of “rioting with destruction” by an all-white jury in Brisbane’s District Court. Wotton was singled out for his participation in the protest on Palm Island that took place following the death in custody on November 19, 2004, of Mulrunji Doomadgee, a 36-year-old Palm Island man, at the hands of Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley. Despite admitting responsibility for the death, Hurley was subsequently acquitted of manslaughter by an all-white jury in Townsville on June 19, 2007.

In the week following the murder, Palm Island residents demanded justice and were met with a massive increase in police repression. At a community meeting on November 26, 2004, the autopsy report into Mulrunji’s death was read out. The report found that the massive injuries, including four broken ribs, a ruptured spleen, a torn portal vein and his liver being cleaved in two were as a result of an “accident”.

The murder of Mulrunji was the 147th Aboriginal death in custody since the 1987-91 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Most of these deaths were hidden from the public. The protest that took place on Palm Island, which involved at least 400 people (at least 10% of the population of the island), was instrumental in bringing the murder to public attention. As a result, political pressure was bought to bear on the Queensland government which was the main reason that Hurley was eventually charged.

But the capitalist “justice” system has many an escape clause to protect its own — and staging the trial of Hurley with an all-white jury in the racist heartland of Townsville was only the beginning. The prosecution failed to call key witnesses and other evidence of murder was disallowed in the trial. The collusion between the Queensland Labor government and the Queensland Police Union ensured that, as usual, the racist criminal “justice” system would look after its own. On the other hand, the same “justice” system will bring its full weight down on those who resist racist police violence.

Immediately following the uprising of November 26, 2004, Palm Island was put under police siege. An illegal state of emergency was imposed and the anti-terrorism squad sent to the island. The squad spent the night illegally detaining those suspected of involvement in the protests; smashing into homes, carrying out illegal searches, brutalising and bashing residents, including attacking them with Taser electric shock guns and police dogs. There were reports of police pointing rifles at children. Police told residents that they could kill them and no-one would know what had happened. Wotton was arrested by 50 police and Tasered while standing outside his house with his hands raised. The police then went into his house and forced his children to lie face down on the ground with guns to their heads.

The raids and illegal detentions continued into the week following the protest. At least 80 heavily armed police continued to lay siege to the island. During Wotton’s trial, evidence was presented of a 22-year-old woman who was detained for a day without food and dressed only in a nightgown then pressured into giving a statement against Wotton. Eighteen men, three women and two children were arrested and flown off the island to Townsville. One man, David Bulsey, was unable to return to his home and his eight children for six months because of the bail conditions. He was subsequently acquitted by a Townsville court.

This show of brute force had nothing to do with “restoring order” as claimed by the Queensland government and police. There was no physical threat. But there was a political threat — and the force used was commensurate with how seriously the authorities took this threat. The Palm Island protest posed a serious public challenge to the immunity given to police who kill Aborigines in custody. Similarly, to protect this immunity immense resources are put into the cover up of Aboriginal deaths in custody — which are not so much about protecting individuals like Hurley as they are about protecting a racist system of intimidation and control. The protest on Palm Island set an example that the police could not allow to go unchallenged. If Indigenous people rose up in mass protest every time there was an Aboriginal death in custody or instance of racist police brutality, the police force’s power to intimidate and control Aborigines would quickly erode.

The brutal state repression of Aboriginal resistance has been a critical function of the police throughout Australia’s history. This repression was, and still is, essential in the dispossession of Aboriginal people from their land. The social devastation that Aboriginal communities face today is a direct result of this dispossession and the attempts to disperse, disorganise and crush any resistance to it.

The intensification of this repression that is currently taking place in remote Aboriginal communities affected by the federal government’s Northern Territory “emergency intervention” can be directly linked to the mining companies’ increasing thirst for access to land — which requires a roll back of the gains of the land rights movement. An example of this intensified repression was the military-style police raid on Kunoth, a town camp in Alice Springs, on the night of October 9. According to a statement issued by the Alice Springs-based Intervention Rollback Action Group, “Police jumped over fences, displayed rifles, pushed and abused residents and trained a red laser light on the chest of one man, perhaps from a taser or a gun”.

Aboriginal resistance to this sort of police repression is presented as being an act of aggression in order to justify further repression. The corporate media plays a central role in this, acting to fuel racist bigotry in order to undermine the other working people’s solidarity with Aboriginal people struggling for their rights. This tactic — of presenting the resistor as the aggressor — is also used internationally. It is used particularly successfully by the Israeli government and the Western media to justify the Zionist state’s occupation and repression of the indigenous Palestinians. A 2001-02 study by the Glasgow University Media Group in Britain found that 90% of British students did not know Israel was occupying Palestine and some who believed that the Palestinians were the occupiers!

This is what the Queensland government, police and corporate media have attempted to do in their singling out of Lex Wotton. He was targeted and charged on concocted evidence to draw attention away from the cause of the Palm Island uprising and to make an example of him. His case is being used as an attempt to re-win ground that the police lost in the massive public exposure of the brutal murder of Mulrunji and the subsequent cover up. As part of this effort, the corporate media reported just days after the guilty verdict was handed down against Wotton that the 22 police on Palm Island on the day of the uprising would receive “bravery awards” at a ceremony in Townsville on November 3 — four days before Wotton’s sentencing in the Townsville District Court. Not a single cop was injured by the Palm Island protesters.

Lex Wotton is a political prisoner. He is behind bars for speaking out against the murder of his friend. He is behind bars because he is an esteemed leader of his community. Meanwhile, Hurley and the hundreds of other cops who have murdered in cold blood, walk free. When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.

Intervention review expected to back land grab

By Hamish Chitts

On September 29, the Rudd government announced that it would give a 2-week extension to the review board and panel of experts handpicked to look at the federal government’s intervention into remote Northern Territory Aboriginal communities. A cursory glance at the participants in this review reveals why they were selected and how all of them are likely to make personal gains if the NT’s Aboriginal lands are opened up to capitalist exploitation.

On June 7 the pro-intervention, Murdoch-owned Australian summed up the review’s anticipated outcome: “The intervention in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities will be strengthened after the Rudd Government yesterday unveiled a 14-member group dominated by pro-intervention thinkers to review its successes and failures.” This 14-member group consists of a three member “Review Board” supported by an 11-member “independent expert group”. The three are Peter Yu, the long-time director of the Kimberley Land Council, Marcia Ella-Duncan, the former chairperson of the NSW Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce, and Bill Gray, a former long-serving Indigenous affairs department bureaucrat.

In May 2006 (after an ABC TV Lateline story on abuse of children in remote Central Australian communities), Yu called for the Australian military to intervene, insisting that Canberra had to do “just like we have done in the Solomon Islands, just like we have done in East Timor, just like we are doing in Afghanistan and Iraq”. Despite feigned moral outrage by media and politicians no emergency response occurred in 2006, but Yu’s comments and mining-friendly attitude through the Kimberly Land Council put him in good favour when politicians decided to use the 2007 report on child abuse in remote NT communities to make large areas of Aboriginal land available to big business.

Yu helped whip up hysteria soon after the intervention by telling ABC radio on July 11, 2007, about the government’s offer to send troops into Western Australian Aboriginal communities: “If there was some designated program in relation to building roads or helping building houses or developing the infrastructure, working in relation to training in particular sorts of skills, in governing skills or management administration skills, I’d take the army, take the navy, take the air force as well.”

Gray and Ella-Duncan have both made careers under various governments tinkering at the edges of Aboriginal disadvantage while not upsetting the politicians or the system that keeps this disadvantage in place. Not long after her appointment to the Review Board, Ella-Duncan told the June 16 Australian: “You could probably look back at earlier comments of mine and realise that while I didn’t necessarily support all of the measures introduced into the Northern Territory by the Howard government, I certainly welcomed the strong political leadership, and it’s something we’ve been advocating for in NSW from the state government and the Aboriginal community as well.” She also stated that intervention should take 15 years to be effective.

The 11-member “expert group” is comprised of more bureaucrats and industry experts who also profit from this tinkering at the edges of Aboriginal disadvantage. It includes John Taylor from the ANU Centre For Aboriginal Economic Policy Research. The centre receives funds from the Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaCSIA), and the Australia Research Council, as well as from industry partners including mining giant Rio Tinto. The centre advocates “Privatisation of Central Australian communities” as the solution to Aboriginal poverty, meaning that big business should throw these communities a few crumbs while it exploits their labour and their land for huge profits.

Another member is Neil Westbury, once the highest-ranking NT public servant, who is part of the Remote Focus Group that released a “prospectus” last month arguing that in remote areas there is a looming crisis of an exploding Aboriginal population that shows few signs of migrating to metropolitan cities. It claims this not only has the potential to impact negatively on the profits of mining companies, but that these communities are like Pacific island “failed states” and could pose a threat to national security requiring armed intervention.

As of July 1, the NT government reorganised all local councils in rural and remote areas into eight “super” shire councils. Three members of the “independent expert group” have benefited from the creation of larger councils — Michael Berto is now CEO of Roper Gulf Shire Council, Ronald Lami Lami is chairperson of the West Arnhem Shire Transition Committee and Mavis Malbunka is vice president of the Ntaria Council. All these councils (as any around the country) seek to encourage business investment into their shires.

As the intervention clears the way for more mining, these shire councils will gain revenue not just from the mines but also from rates on miners’ housing and the smaller businesses that spring up around the mines. These heads of these councils therefore have a direct interest in the continuation of the intervention. It’s no wonder that on February 2 Malbunka said: “Income management is a great help for Aboriginal people; in Hermannsburg I hear no complaint about income management.”

David Ross is the director of the Central Land Council and is also member of the advisory group. Ross, like Yu, has the same interest in increased mining and the personal wealth it can bring as the new shire councils do. Ross stated on November 12, 2003, in response to a Minerals Council suggestion that land councils are a barrier to mining company profits: “I contend that the kilograms of gold currently being shipped out of Tennant Creek would not be happening without the involvement of a well-resourced and experienced representative body such as the Central Land Council.”

Group members Donna Ah Chee, deputy director of the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress (health care service), and Vicki Gillick, coordinator of the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council, have gained their places through their conservative views on tackling the social and health problems that are a result of poverty. Speaking about alcohol abuse, Ah Chee told ABC News Online: “We can’t treat it as a symptom; we do have to treat it as a cause and we have to deal with it.” This is despite the volumes of research that show that rates of alcoholism, substance abuse and associated problems in any community around the world increase as its standard of living drops.

Gillick told ABC radio’s November 27 Law Report: “Certainly my personal view is that I don’t believe any parent has the right to blow their brains on drugs, or grog, and neglect their children, and I think that welfare reform aimed at dealing with that should apply across the board.” The views expressed by Ah Chee and Gillick suit the federal government’s portrayal of the intervention as “tough love”, hiding its true intent — the continuation of over 220 years of theft of Aboriginal lands — and the obscuring of the fact that the low standard of living in remote Aboriginal communities is a direct result of deliberate government policy and neglect.

The only group member to have made some public criticism of the intervention is Mark Wenitong, the senior medical officer at Apunipima Cape York Health Council and past president and founding member of the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association. When the intervention began in 2007, Wenitong raised concerns about the lack of consultation with Aborigines and the possible negative effects of intrusive compulsory health checks. However, in an interview with Triple J Radio’s Hack program, Wenitong said he thought the intervention, if done right, was a chance to “fund healthcare, education and infrastructure on an ongoing basis”. Wenitong’s belief that the intervention was actually about government concern for Aboriginal children shows considerable naivete.

The review’s expected endorsement of the intervention should come as no surprise: PM Kevin Rudd and Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin handpicked a group that would give them the review outcome they wanted.

Aboriginal deaths in custody: Protests to demand justice

By Kathy Newnam

Protest actions are being planned for Brisbane in October when Lex Wotton faces court. Wotton has been portrayed by the Queensland police, government and establishment media as the leader of the “riot” that occurred on Palm Island on November 26, 2004. A police station and residence were destroyed after a police report on the death of community member Mulrunji Doomadgee was read at a public meeting; the report concluded that his death was an accident. The October protests will call for the dropping of all charges against Wotton and demand an end to Aboriginal deaths in custody.

Since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, there has been an increase in Aboriginal people dying in custody. During the commission itself, which ran from 1987 until 1991, just under one Aborigine per month was dying in custody. According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, there were 14 Indigenous deaths in custody in 2004; 15 in 2005 and 10 in 2006. In 2006, Indigenous Australians accounted for 30% of all deaths in police custody. These rates are higher than in South Africa at the peak of the apartheid regime’s brutality.

In the 1980s a strong campaign against Aboriginal deaths in custody was spearheaded by the National Committee to Defend Black Rights. In response to this campaign, the Hawke Labor government established the royal commission. It was presented with 124 deaths in custody between 1980 and 1989, of which it investigated 99. However, not a single police or jail officer was charged. The commission made 339 recommendations, half of which aimed at keeping Aborigines out of jail, with the emphasis being on prison as a last resort. Seventeen years later, those recommendations are still not being implemented.

According to a 2006 Australian Medical Association report titled Undue Punishment? Aboriginal People And Torres Strait Islanders In Prison: An Unacceptable Reality, Indigenous people accounted for 22% of prisoners in 2005 despite being only 2.4% of Australia’s population. Imprisonment rates are even greater for young Indigenous people, who are 19 times more likely to be imprisoned than other Australians. According to NSW-based organisation Justice Action, which campaigns on criminal justice and prison reform, in July 2006 Indigenous people made up 39.7% of the prison population; by January 2007, this figure had risen to 41.7%.

Over-policing is the main reason for this over-representation. Indigenous communities are routinely subject to a greater level of surveillance and intimidation. Police use certain laws to harass and intimidate Aboriginal communities; one example is known as the “trifecta” — offensive behaviour, resisting arrest and assaulting police. In this way, a charge can be concocted against people whose only “crime” is coming into contact with police.

Police powers, such as search and remove powers, are also over-used in areas with a high Aboriginal population. A 2001 study by the Aboriginal Justice Advisory Council (AJAC) found that in Bourke, police used their powers at a rate 492 times the NSW average, and Aborigines were searched at 30 times the average NSW rate. The study also found that police used their “move on” powers at 321 times the average NSW rate in Walgett, 173 times in Moree and 145 times in Broken Hill. The study also found that in 10 areas in NSW with high Indigenous populations, Aboriginal women were locked up for intoxication at 40 times the rate of non-Aboriginal women and that detention for outstanding warrants was 14.4 times higher for Aboriginal men, 16.5 times for Aboriginal women.

This racism continues throughout the “justice” system. According to AJAC, 10% of Aboriginal defendants were refused bail in 1999, compared with 4% of non-Aborigines. The majority of Aborigines in prison are serving short sentences for minor offences. According to Justice Action, if all the Indigenous people currently serving sentences under six months were given a non-custodial sentence, the number of Indigenous prisoners would be reduced by 54%.
Systemic racism

This systemic racism is justified by politicians and the corporate media in terms of “law and order”. Both major parties regularly resort to racist fear-mongering to justify increased police powers, or to whip up scare campaigns at election time. They readily attack the most marginalised in society, but never mention the devastating impact of the structural racism. They point to symptoms of this in Aboriginal communities — high levels of unemployment, poverty, homelessness, substance abuse — and turn it around to blame the victims.

The “justice” system perpetuates the dispossession of the Aboriginal people — according to the AMA’s Undue Punishment? report, more than 30% of Indigenous prisoners were taken from their parents as children and a third of those were never returned. Among Indigenous people in prison, 31% of women and 21% of men reported that their parents had been forcibly removed from their families as children.

Australia and its “justice” system were built on attempted genocide against the Aboriginal people and the theft of their land. Ongoing dispossession is at the heart of the high rate of incarceration of Aborigines and the continuing immunity of police and prison officers who kill Aborigines in custody. This immunity amounts to state-sanctioned murder, and is an important weapon of control and power.

It is not just a product of corruption or turning a blind eye to a few “bad apples”. Those responsible for deaths in custody are not only immune from punishment, but are often promoted. After the murder of Mulrunji on Palm Island on November 19, 2004, the police officer responsible, Sergeant Chris Hurley was transferred to a cushy post on the Gold Coast. Recently, he was awarded a $100,000 payout, ostensibly for “loss of belongings” in the fire at the Palm Island police residence that took place during uprising after the release, on November 26, 2004, of the autopsy results. These detailed the extent of Mulrunji’s injuries — four broken ribs, a ruptured liver, spleen, portal vein and internal bleeding that caused death — but whitewashed the injuries as being the result of a scuffle.

The resulting uprising of more than 400 Palm Island residents (10% of the population of the island) brought the death into public view — setting it apart from so many other black deaths in custody that take place every year. This public attention and pressure from the campaign eventually resulted in Hurley being charged with manslaughter. His subsequent acquittal, despite admitting in court to causing the death of Mulrunji, confirmed how rigged the “justice” system is against Aborigines. He was tried in the racist heartland of Townsville by an all-white jury, and key evidence in the case was disallowed.

The extent of the cover-up of deaths in custody was also revealed in a 2005 civil case brought by Letty Scott against prison officers involved in the death of her husband, Douglas Scott, in Darwin’s Berrimah prison on July 5, 1985. Letty Scott fought a 20-year battle for justice, gathering overwhelming evidence of murder that was presented in the court case, including the exhumation of her husband’s body and forensic examination which found that his injuries could have been inflicted only by prolonged assault and torture.

The trial bought to light that the cover-up went beyond the NT government, police and the prison system, involving complicity in the cover-up from the doctor employed to carry out the original autopsy, scientists called upon to give forensic evidence for the defence and the royal commission itself — Douglas Scott’s death was one of the 99 cases it investigated.

During the trial, Letty Scott stated that the royal commission was “a lawyer’s picnic on the blood of Aboriginal people”, that it had been “set up to cover [up] the murder of our people”. She detailed how she had been completely disempowered by the commission and not allowed to talk about any evidence of murder, but only about the “arguments and dysfunctions”. Further, she had not approved of the statement that was submitted to the commission by her appointed legal representative, supposedly on behalf of the Scott family. The commission did not hear from eyewitnesses to Douglas Scott’s murder. Other key evidence, including Polaroid photos of his body hung from the prison ceiling, was withheld from the commission.

Despite the overwhelming evidence presented in the 2005 trial, the court dismissed the case for murder while finding that it was “unable to be satisfied that the deceased took his own life”. The NT government took no action on this finding, despite the fact that it was contrary to the original inquest and the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, both of which found that Douglas Scott had committed suicide.

The case demonstrated once again how stacked the “justice” system is against Aboriginal people. While murderers walk free, the full weight of the law is brought to bear against those who speak out for justice. It is this system of injustice, not freedom fighters like Lex Wotton, that should be on trial.