Free Lex Wotton!

November 8, 2008

Palm Island Aboriginal man Lex Wotton was sentenced to six years' jail for "riot with destruction" on November 7 — just four days after 22 police officers received "bravery awards" for their role in the 2004 Palm Island protests.

Wotton will be due for parole in July 2010.

Palm Islanders had protested after hearing that, within an hour of being taken into custody, Aboriginal man Mulrunji was found lying dead in a Palm Island watch house, with four broken ribs and a liver split in two. The death would be recorded as another "accident".

Wotton was charged in relation to the burning of the island's courthouse, police station and sergeant Chris Hurley's police residence during the protests.

Aboriginal leaders described the November 3 bravery awards as "thuggish politics", while Queensland parliament's speaker Mike Reynolds called his own government's support for the award's timing "culturally incompetent".

Reynolds, who is the state MP for Townsville, was one of several prominent persons who provided character references at Wotton's sentencing.

With the prosecution seeking a jail term of at least 10 years, there was some relief that Wotton's sentence was not heavier. "Our brother will be out in 18 months", activist Gracelyn Smallwood said outside the court.

But social justice commissioner Tom Calma told ABC that it was "a sad day for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that a sentence such as this has been handed down".

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Indeed, Wotton's sentencing and the "bravery awards" are only the latest in a humiliating chapter of police oppression of Aboriginal people in the Palm Island case.

Hurley, who took Mulrunji into custody and was subsequently found not guilty of causing his death by an all-white jury, has allegedly been involved in at least two other instances of Aboriginal people being seriously injured. On both occasions, he got off scott-free. On hearing that Mulrunji had died in Hurley's care, the community exploded.

Wotton's trial was mostly based on his character. Police officers were accused by Wotton's defence lawyer of colluding with each other and "lying through their teeth" to give matching testimony, constructing for the court the image of Wotton as ringleader of the 2004 uprising.

The police's story was one of an abusive Wotton threatening police and arranging for petrol to be brought to the buildings tagetted and disabling the water mains to hinder firefighters' attempts to douse the flames.

Wotton's story was very different.

Wotton told a public meeting in Melbourne on August 9, that he'd been on his way to the airport to leave Palm Island and visit relatives on the mainland. The 40-year-old plumber was asked to return to town to repair some water pipes. In order to accomplish the repairs he turned off the local water mains.

He then heard about the community meeting about Mulrunji's death and attended, hearing the allegation made by fellow prisoner Patrick Bramwell that Hurley had beaten Mulrunji. Wotton participated in the protests that resulted in the buildings being set alight, but so did 200-400 other Palm Island residents who weren't charged with "riot with destruction".

But the police needed someone to charge as a ringleader, and they made Wotton fit the bill.

In order to do this, police witnesses described Wotton's abuse toward them and produced three other witnesses who claimed he orchestrated the arson.

One was Wotton's niece, Tiana Friday, who on the stand claimed she'd been intimidated into making a statement that Wotton had organised the cans of petrol for the arson. She said that she hadn't in fact witnessed Wotton, but heard second-hand rumours in the community that this was the case.

Another was Terrence Kidner, who had been given a light sentence in a previous trial for "riot with destruction" on the understanding that he'd acted under orders from Wotton when he'd set alight one of the buildings. During Wotton's trial, Kidner was accompanied at all times by two large police "minders".

A third witness, Joelene O'Neill, claimed she saw Wotton carrying petrol cans to the scene. It was noted by the defence that O'Neill's sister had made a number of serious allegations against Wotton's brother, and therefore might hold a grudge against Wotton. It was also noted that she was at least "half a football field" away from Wotton at the time.

For each of these witnesses, the judge asked jury members to be aware of the strong possibility that each was lying for personal interest.

Video evidence at the trial showed Wotton playing a different role. At times, he asked the crowd to stop throwing rocks in case they injured someone. He stopped the crowd from attacking the fire truck; he told firefighters that he'd turned off the mains so, he alleged, they knew to get water from an alternate source; and he offered transport to get police officers out of harms' way.

But he had stood up to police who kill, which was the real crime.

Each of these actions was twisted by police to conform to the Wotton they wanted the jury to see. He'd led the rock-throwing, they said. He told the firefighters he'd turned off the water mains to mock them. His offer of transport was a threat.

The October 22 National Indigenous Times reported the prosecution finishing with the statement "Lex Patrick Wotton could not burn (down the police station) by himself. He needed the mob."

Despite evidence that he'd actually tried to calm "the mob" down, allegations made during the trial were enough for an all-white jury to find Wotton guilty of riot with destruction — and sentenced to six years!

The police sent to the island in the wake of the uprising received awards for their courage, but, by-and-large, they ran away at the time.

According to ABC Online on October 28, Queensland Aboriginal activist and Socialist Alliance spokesperson Sam Watson described the timing for the award ceremony as "just not acceptable, this is cheap, brutal and thuggish politics."

"What the police are attempting to do is present themselves as victims and place pressure on the trial judge to hand down a very severe penalty", Watson said.

The night of the uprising, after the protests had died down and the officers who had "feared for their lives" had nursed the minor bruising they received, police went door-to-door seeking the "ringleaders" of the action. Nineteen Aboriginal men were taken from the island, with bail conditions stopping them from returning until after their trial.

Some, including Wotton, were tasered into submission.

It is for this "courage" that police received their awards, and it's not the only award dubiously earned by police who were part of this case.

Even though an all-white Townsville jury found him not guilty of manslaughter in the case of Mulrunji, Hurley admitted in court that he "must have" caused Mulrunji's death.

For his part, Hurley received a promotion, compensation totalling $100,000 and a new job on the Gold Coast. He has said he will launch legal action in order to overturn the coroner's findings and clear his name.

In December, the Criminal Misconduct Commission ordered Hurley to undergo counselling in light of the allegations against him. "It is considered that there is insufficient evidence to establish any criminal offence or disciplinary breach against Hurley", the CMC repot, which was aired on ABC's Lateline on November 3, said.

"However, the number of similar complaints of excessive use of force (although unsubstantiated) that have been made against Hurley is of concern."

A reason at least one of the complaints was "unsubstantiated" was that Hurley's partner, detective sergeant Darren Robinson, lied that there were no witnesses to an allegation that Hurley deliberately ran over a woman's foot, causing her bone to stick through her skin.

Robinson admitted to this lie during Wotton's trial. According to the November 4 Australian, Robinson is currently on leave and facing possible disciplinary or criminal charges over his conduct in the Mulrunji investigation, yet he was a key witness in Wotton's conviction.

Mulrunji's son committed suicide in July, 2004, and the prisoner, Patrick Bramwell, who claimed he saw Mulrunji beaten. was found hanged to death on January, 2007.

Wotton's lawyer, Stewart Levitt, said Wotton would appeal his conviction. "We'll take this all the way to the International Court of Justice in The Hague if we have to", Levitt said. "We have serious concerns about this conviction. The verdict must leave Aborigines in remote Queensland communities cowering."

Watson said on November 7: "People who want to understand this case can only draw one conclusion. Institutional racism is alive and well within the Queensland establishment.

"Obama may win a landslide result even in the Deep South, but for our Deep North to change Aboriginal people will have to commit themselves to determined and relentless struggle against its entrenched racism."

The difference between the trials of Hurley and Wotton is staggering and reveal a discriminatory system rewards cops who kill and jails those who stand up to them.

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