G20 sentencing: upping the ante on the right to protest

April 19, 2008

In an obvious attempt to silence political dissent, on April 14, 10 G20 protesters who had pleaded guilty to charges of common law riot, criminal damage and recklessly causing injury received severe sentences in Melbourne's Magistrates court.

The court cases relate to altercations with police that occurred during the Melbourne G20 summit demonstrations in November 2006. The G20 meeting involved finance ministers, central bank governors, World Bank and International Monetary Fund representatives from the world's 19 largest economies.

Five protesters received wholly suspended jail sentences, ranging from five to nine months, and four of the five also copped fines of up to $4000. Five more people were also convicted and sentenced to 12-month community-based orders with unpaid work of up to 250 hours. Before this sentencing, one G20 protester — who has a mental illness — had already been charged with aggravated burglary among other things, and on March 7 was sentenced by a County Court judge to 28 months jail with a non parole period of 14 months.

Four minors still face charges of riot and affray in the Children's Court and another group of 13 protesters, who have pleaded not guilty to charges, will stand trial at the County Court later in the year.

The G20 cases are exceptional because of their unusual indictment procedure, and are an indication that the state is cracking down hard on political dissent. It has been common practice in the past that protesters charged during demonstrations in Melbourne are dealt with quickly by magistrates.

David Marr argues in the March 22 Sydney Morning Herald that the three charges of unlawful assembly, criminal damage and aggravated burglary (which carries a maximum 25-year prison sentence) laid against some activists — after brief occupations of defence recruiting and contractors' offices during the protests — were used by the prosecution as a lever to take the cases to the County Court. The same article also suggests that the action by protesters at the G20 summit demonstration were not at all the worst seen in Melbourne, but that the state's determination to prosecute was "unprecedented", in the words of civil rights lawyer Rob Stary.

A report released by the Federation of Community Legal Centres of Victoria in 2007 accused the police of using disproportionate and unjustifiable force against protesters and bystanders during the G20 summit. The report also said that the strategy of the mainstream media and police in their portrayal of protesters was designed to erode the public's confidence in the value of protest and defence of democratic rights and civil liberties.

The police presence (on horses, in riot gear and with brawler vans) during the G20 summit was completely menacing. It was designed to overwhelm and intimidate a citizenry long unhappy with unpopular government policies.

The Australian Federal Police and the Victorian police started their vicious crackdown on activists involved in the protest before the G20 summit had even officially ended, seriously violating civil liberties in the process.

One man who didn't even participate in the protests was violently snatched by police in the Melbourne CBD on Sunday November 19 and thrown into a divvy van. The man, who was arrested and later released, told the November 20, 2006 Melbourne Age that he had his hands tied and a policeman sitting on his head whilst being driven around town to a police station.

Simultaneous early morning raids occurred in 2007, involving officers from the NSW, Victorian and federal police and counter-terrorism agents. According to a statement by Tim Davis-Frank, who was arrested in Sydney in March 2007 and had his house raided, some of the arrests "led to serious personal injuries, significant property damage, loss of jobs and, in one case, being locked up for a month without bail".

Liz Thompson from the Ongoing G20 Arrestee Solidarity Network told Green Left Weekly that the crackdown on the G20 protesters is closely linked to the "war on terror", its associated attacks on civil liberties and the expansion of police powers. "They were always going to find some type of 'emergency' to justify bringing these things in — whether it be people throwing bottles at a police brawler van or street brawls in the city. This is how the war on terror works", she commented.

"To be able to continue to justify the spending on CIRT [Critical Incident Response Teams] and other heavily armed police units, they have to keep coming up with a threat. This is why the NSW police arguing to the anti-terror unit that they had an important role to play in the G20 arrests is significant. It is a politically savvy move on the cops' part to ensure that the money keeps flowing. If the squads don't get used, how will they keep justifying their existence to government bean counters?"

Thompson also highlighted the exclusion list that was developed specifically for the September 2007 APEC demonstration (prohibiting people from attending protests) — which included all of the G20 arrestees in Sydney — and the subsequent proposal to make the extraordinary APEC police powers permanently available to police. She pointed out that these are worrying developments.

The Ongoing G20 Arrestee Solidarity Network is calling for all charges to be dropped from the outstanding 17 court cases. For more information visit http://www.afterg20.org.

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