Criminal conviction for peaceful protest


By Anne Casey

SYDNEY — A dangerous precedent has been set in NSW with the criminal conviction of five logging protesters who appeared in Cooma Local Court on July 7.

The five conservationists were arrested in April during a peaceful protest in Badja Sate Forest. They were charged for blocking heavy logging machinery by locking themselves by their neck onto the machinery, sitting peacefully on wooden tripods or clasping super-glued hands through machinery while surrounded by foresters and police.

However, rather than facing the usual, civil charge of "trespass", they were called on to defend the criminal charge of "intimidation".

Although it has been on the statutes for nearly a century, police were unaware of the intimidation charge until the Police Service's legal department advised them to use it earlier this year. All five were found guilty and fined a total of nearly $4000. The charge can carry a jail sentence.

The Badja State Forest links the Deua wilderness to the Brogo wilderness further to the south and allows at least seven endangered fauna to live in and travel through the area, including koalas, tiger quolls and squirrel gliders.

Steve Taylor, spokesperson for the Wilderness Society, told Green Left Weekly, "The Forestry Commission is getting desperate because it doesn't want attention focused on what it's doing in the wilderness and old growth forests. Government reports like the Resource Assessment Commission report have said that there should be no further logging in Wilderness and Old Growth Forest, and the National Forest Policy Statement, which was signed by the NSW premier and the prime minister, said that there should be a moratorium on logging in those forests until assessments are done so that new reserves can be determined.

"The Forestry Commission really wants to get as much timber out of these areas over the next few years as it can before they are protected. In the meantime protests are starting up because people are seeing these priceless areas being trashed by the Forestry Commission. This is clearly bad publicity, and so their reaction is to try to stifle protest action."

The Australian Council for Civil Liberties (ACCL), quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald, described the convictions as "outrageous". It is backing an appeal against them. The secretary of the ACCL, John Marsden, said the authorities had interfered with the "basic right to protest".

This interference could be applied in almost any protest situation, says Taylor. "This conviction sets a precedent which affects the right to protest anywhere in the state of NSW. Unionists picketing an unsafe work site where people were still trying to turn up to work could now be charged with intimidation and convicted under the Crimes Act. It turns protesting into a criminal offence with the possibility of jail sentences rather than a civil offence.

"What's more, the court decided that Commonwealth policy has no power in a NSW court and that NSW legislation overruled any policy commitments that the premier made with the prime minister. So the National Forest Policy means nothing; it's just a piece of paper with some fine words on it. Now people who are trying to uphold it are getting criminal convictions."