Fifty people heard leading Queensland Aboriginal activist Sam Watson announce at a February 7 public meeting held in the Sydney inner-west suburb of Leichhardt that Queensland Police Sergeant Chris Hurley was formally charged on February 5 with manslaughter and assault occasioning bodily harm for the 2004 death in custody of Palm Island Aborigine Mulrunji Doomadgee.
"There was no reason for his [Mulrunji's] arrest", Watson told the meeting, which had been jointly organised the Indigenous Social Justice Association (ISJA) and the Socialist Alliance. "He was a fit and healthy man prior to the arrest."
Watson explained that the charges against Hurley were the result of a sustained public campaign by Queensland Aborigines and their supporters. Many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people mobilised in street marches and rallies. Many thousands signed petitions calling for justice for Mulrunji.
The Queensland Labor state government was forced to appoint former NSW Chief Justice Sir Lawrence Street to review the evidence after Director of Public Prosecutions Leanne Clare had refused to charge Hurley despite deputy coroner Christine Clements having found that Hurley was responsible for Mulrunji's death.
Street's finding that there was sufficient admissible evidence to charge Hurley and warrant a conviction compelled Queensland attorney-general Kerry Shine to initiate charges against Hurley.
"Only in two incidents have police been charged in connection with an Aboriginal death in custody — in John Pat's death in 1986 the police officers were acquitted, and now Mulrunji's case in 2007", Watson said.
There have been more than 200 Aboriginal deaths in custody since the 1991 Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody.
"Deaths in custody is a political priority, as is defending those charged with offences on Palm Island after Mulrunji's death", Watson said.
The campaign against deaths in custody will also target the Crime and Misconduct Commission, Watson said, as the CMC found police in Aurukun did not do anything wrong, even after discharging an unlicenced gun into an Aboriginal community protest.
"We are not going to stand back anymore", said Watson.
The meeting was also addressed by ISJA president Ray Jackson, NSW Socialist Alliance candidate Raul Bassi and Aunty Bowie Hickey, who spoke about the campaign for justice for TJ Hickey, a young Aboriginal man killed when chased by Redfern police onto a spiked fence on February 14, 2004.
Watson announced that solidarity contingents would be coming from interstate to support the Hickey family and Redfern Aboriginal community on the third anniversary of Hickey's murder. A rally and march will be held on February 14 (beginning at 10.30am) at the corner of George and Philips streets, Waterloo, to demand justice for Hickey.