A group of Christian activists, charged with entering the top secret Pine Gap Joint Defence Facility near Alice Springs, have been found guilty. In a separate trial, a man has been found guilty of the same offence. They all face a maximum sentence of seven years’ jail.
Paul Christie was found guilty of entering the grounds of the US facility near Alice Springs on October 3 last year. During his trial, Christie said he went into the facility to pray and sing for people who have been killed in foreign wars as a result of activities carried out at Pine Gap. He has yet to be sentenced.
Christian activists Timothy Webb, Andrew Paine, Franz Dowling, Margaret Pestorius and James Dowling were each charged with trespass under the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act for entering the prohibited area without a permit on September 29 last year. Webb was also charged with filming while on the base.
The five admitted to climbing through a 1.2-metre-high barbed-wire perimeter fence, but said they did it in self-defence and the defence of others, arguing it was to defend possible victims of drone strikes.
They were part of a week-long protest camp in Alice Springs, held on the 50th anniversary of the founding of Pine Gap, to discuss the role of the highly secretive facility in drone targeting, mass citizen surveillance and preparations for nuclear war.
Professor Richard Tanter, from the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, an acknowledged expert on the secretive base, was called as a defence witness. He told the court Pine Gap is “perhaps the most important US intelligence facility outside the US”.
He said Pine Gap is “an essential part” of US drone strikes, as it could intercept and locate signals from mobile and satellite phones and radio communications. This information can be used by the US National Security Agency to organise drone strikes
Tanter told the court: “I do not think [the drone strike program] could operate at anything like the level it does [without Pine Gap] and therefore if it was not there the effects we are seeing in countries with which we are not at war, for example Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, would not be so great.”
Pestorius told the court the group hoped to disrupt the activities at Pine Gap for long enough to stop some drone strikes.
“We went there to try to stop information from getting from A to B to C, which is some poor villager. That week there was a drone strike which killed 15 people, 14 of whom were not insurgents.”
Former Greens Senator Scott Ludlum also spoke for the defence about the role the Pine Gap military base has in the US drone warfare program, after Justice John Reeves overruled Crown objections to his giving evidence.
Ludlum — one of the parliamentarians recently caught up in the dual citizenship fiasco — described himself as “between jobs” and said he was giving evidence in a private capacity.
He said it is clear the Pine Gap facility has been engaged for some time in targeting operations for the US drone program. He said this information has not been disputed by US authorities and gives rise to moral, ethical and deep legal questions for the US.
“As an Australian citizen”, he said he held “grave concerns” about Pine Gap’s involvement in drone assassinations.
However, Justice Reeves ruled a question on Pine Gap’s involvement in a potential nuclear war was irrelevant to the defence that they were responding to an “extraordinary emergency” and acting in defence of self and others.
Later attempts to ask Ludlum about the effectiveness of civil disobedience as a way of trying to stop the emergency the defendants believed to be imminent were also ruled irrelevant.
The late former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser gave evidence via an ABC radio interview from 2014 played to the court in which he called for the closure of Pine Gap because it was involved in targeting for drones.
He said Australians operating out of Pine Gap involved in that targeting had no legal cover and could be vulnerable to charges of crimes against humanity. He said he believed that drone warfare would eventually be outlawed by international agreement.
He also argued strongly for Australia to make its own foreign policy decisions: “I really think it is totally un-Australian to have a situation in which it is America that is in charge of our destiny,” he said in the interview.