Sergio Herbert was sentenced on November 22 to 12 months’ imprisonment, with a six-month non-parole period, for taking non-violent direct action as part of Blockade Australia’s two-week mobilisation against coal. He was also fined $200 for remaining on enclosed land without a lawful excuse.
Herbert has since been released on bail, pending an appeal against the sentence.
The climate activist was arrested during the first week of the mobilisation, when he climbed on top of a coal train, sat on the coal and livestreamed his protest on Facebook. He succeeded in closing the Hunter train line for more than two hours, delaying 15 coal trains and four passenger trains between Newcastle and Maitland.
Herbert was charged with “obstruction of rail locomotive”, “hindering mining equipment” and “obstruction of rail locomotive or rolling stock”.
Herbert’s sentence could have been much worse: NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller has threatened to charge protesters who block rail lines with laws intended to punish those who injure or kill rail passengers. These charges carry a maximum sentence of 25 years in jail.
The sentencing magistrate was Janine Lacy, the partner of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation NSW leader Mark Latham.
Blockade Australia said it was facing “extreme measures” by authorities to shut down its protest, with at least 28 people arrested this month in relation to direct actions taken by the group. It described the police actions to stop ongoing protests as "repression" and an "outrage".
“We are seeing extreme measures to systematically target voices of dissent and political opposition. In the last two weeks activists have been given charges that carry 25-year sentences; been put through psychological and physical harm to remove them from lock-ons or tripods; severe community corrections orders; non-association conditions; and today, 12 months in a cold jail cell.
“This is the type of repression and state-sanctioned violence that has been waged against First Nation Peoples for the past 250 years by the greed-driven Australia.
“This response from the legal system only further exposes Australia as a deliberately designed racket that is intent on self-preservation and the protection of the ruling class.”
Blockade Australia spokesperson Hannah Doole said she was "angry and scared on Sergio's behalf".
"This is a matter of concern for everybody that expresses dissent to the current political system and to politics in this country in whatever form.
"This is a young person who is fighting for their life, fighting for all life on the planet. And they have just been sentenced to six months no parole. Twelve months imprisonment is an outrage," she said.
Explaining that his action was taken to oppose the role Australia plays in the climate and ecological crisis, Herbert said: “We’re taking our future back. When the government decides it’s going to destroy its people through ecocide, the people will rise up.
“This is what real democracy looks like. This is what a real vote means. We all know that Australia’s rigged democracy does not represent us. It is time we take our power back by getting in the way of economic arteries across this continent.”
The Solidarity and Resistance Collective supports the actions being taken. It labelled the sentence "unjust" and is organising peaceful protests to demonstrate concern over the severity of the sentence.
A Solidarity and Resistance Collective spokesperson said: “These types of offences in the past have been minor offences. People have been given fines or good behaviour bonds, and something like this is completely unprecedented.
“It's a pretty harsh omen for all activism on this continent if this goes unchallenged."
Federal Labor Shadow Minister Assisting for Climate Change, and Shortland MP, Pat Conroy said he supported the sentence: “I think it sends a strong message to these sorts of extremists, that their actions are unacceptable.”
He said such protests interrupt and prevent a legal activity, which delivers millions of dollars of wages to families in his community. “It actually hurts the cause of climate change action, so I think this was an appropriate sentence," he said.
However, NSW Council for Civil Liberties president Pauline Wright said the law is too harsh on protesters and it should be repealed or revised.
“If the law means that people participating in peaceful protest end up in jail then that law is objectionable in a liberal democracy where we have a right to peacefully protest,” she said.