Saturday, 10 April 2010

White v South Australia

Beverley Uranium Mine Plaintiffs outside court after their historic win

In May 2000, several groups converged on the Beverley Uranium Mine to support the local indigenous people and to oppose mining. On 9th May about 70 people walked quietly and peacefully onto the land constituting the uranium lease.

Police reacted with violence.

They drove cars into retreating protesters.

They beat protesters with batons - including protesters on the ground.

They sprayed fleeing protesters with capsicum spray, and sprayed people who had already been brought to the ground. In one case, for no good reason, they sprayed into the rear of a cage car and left the three young women occupants, one of whom was an asthmatic, in the sun for over an hour. They sprayed an 11 year old indigenous girl - who was legally entitled to be on the land.

STAR force officers (ie riot squad) with helmets and shields and batons, used wedge formations to drive into retreating protesters and attack them with shields and batons, even though they were leaving the land and obviously behaving peacefully.

The police targeted anyone who was filming. This included the channel 7 cameraman, and Lucinda White, who had not been on the land at all, but stood outside the fence to film police conduct.

The police then locked 30 prisoners in a shipping container even though they had no legal basis for arresting them in the first place. They held their prisoners for up to 8 hours, giving them no food and virtually no water in that time.

The Police Complaints Authority recommended disciplinary charges against police, but no disciplinary proceedings were launched.

Not having seen the police made accountable in any other way, ten plaintiffs sued for assault and for false imprisonment. They included Jamie Holland, the Channel 7 cameraman, who was locked in the shipping container, and Helen Gowans, the 11 year old indigenous girl who had been sprayed by police.

Senior ministers in the South Australian government publicly attacked the plaintiffs, calling them "ferals" and "anarchists" and accusing them (falsely) of having put the lives of police at risk. They also implied that they had deliberately provoked the police response in order to claim damages. They publicly stated that they would not settle the claim.

The trial lasted four months. All the plaintiffs gave evidence and they were cross examined at great length by Senior Counsel for the State of South Australia. All the police gave evidence. At no stage did police apologize for their conduct.

Yesterday, 9th April 2010 - 9 years and 11 months after the incident - the Supreme Court of South Australia awarded the plaintiffs a total of $724,560 damages, together with costs yet to be assessed.

The judge was scathing about the comments of the senior ministers involved - Kevin Foley and Michael Wright. He said that he had increased the damages because of those unjustified comments.

We give the police special powers. We give them equipment which it would be an offence for anyone else to possess - such as capsicum spray. Where we give people this power, they must be accountable for any abuse of that power.

In this case the police, supported by senior government ministers, abused that power and broke the law.

Our system of government relies on the separation of the judicial, executive, and parliamentary arms of government, so that each can bring the other to account. It is a tribute to the effectiveness of that system that in this case the judiciary has called the executive arm of government to account and required it to pay substantial damages for its severe wrongdoing and for the harm caused to citizens.

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