By Peter Chiltern
The Federal Court has ordered Federal Police to return computers worth about $17,000 seized in a raid on the Launceston Unemployed Workers Union two months ago.
During the hearing, Justice Northrop was critical of police actions in the case, and particularly delays in returning the equipment. "This is still a free country", he told them at one point.
The court gave the police 14 days to return the equipment in exchange for the UWU's agreement to supply passwords necessary to access financial records. The union had previously offered to supply the passwords and to allow the police to copy relevant files in return for the restoration of its equipment.
The computers are vital to the operations of the UWU and an associated desktop publishing business.
Police instead sent the equipment to Melbourne for an unsuccessful bid to break into the files. UWU spokesperson Bill Bartlett says the attempt to crack the computers' security system "would not have succeeded in a million years".
The Federal Police also revealed for the first time that the March 19 raid had been prompted by information from one person that Bartlett had been employed by the UWU under a false name while he was also on the dole, and had not declared his earnings to the Department of Social Security. Bartlett denies these claims and says he is surprised warrants for the original raids could have been issued on such flimsy grounds. No charges have been laid as a result of the raid.
The UWU says one of its computers was returned damaged before the Federal Court case because police thought it didn't have a hard disk. In fact it did have a hard disk, but the disk had been damaged while in police custody and had to be replaced. The case of the machine was damaged as if something heavy had been dropped on it.
Protests against the Federal Police treatment of the Launceston UWU can be sent to Senator Michael Tate, minister for justice and consumer affairs, Suite MF40 House of Representatives, Canberra ACT 2600. Fax no: (06) 273 4136.