Incitement trial of refugee activist begins

Melbourne Magistrate's Court on January 27. Photo: Zane Alcorn

About 60 people gathered outside the Melbourne Magistrates Court on January 27 to support Refugee Action Collective member Chris Breen, who is on trial for “inciting” people to participate in a car cavalcade to support detained refugees.

The cavalcade on April 10 went past the Mantra Hotel where 65 refugees were detained. Thirty participants were fined $1652 each, a total of nearly $50,000. Most are planning to challenge the fines.

Breen was arrested before the cavalcade began and held for nine hours. The incitement charge relates to his creation of a Facebook event advertising the car cavalcade.

Victoria Police claimed that the cavalcade violated COVID-19 health regulations which, at that time, banned people from leaving home except for a limited number of reasons.

Breen intends to argue that the cavalcade was legal because it was done for compassionate reasons: providing moral support to refugees suffering depression as a result of their detention.

Breen told the rally outside the court that the car cavalcade was safe, whereas the detention of refugees is unsafe since it has led to many cases of self-harm and attempted suicide.

Thirteen refugees have died in Australia’s offshore detention camps.

Breen noted that in the same week he was arrested, the Country Fire Authority and the police both organised car cavalcades and were not penalised.

He said that if he was found guilty, it would have a “chilling effect” on the refugee rights movement and other campaigns for justice.

Victorian Greens MP Tim Read, Tamil Refugee Council member Barathan Vidhyapathy, National Tertiary Education Union Victorian secretary Mel Slee and Victorian Greens multicultural committee secretary Apsara Sabaratnam also spoke out in support.

Sabaratnam described the problems faced by refugees on short-term visas, who have just been released from hotel detention. They have no financial support from the government and, given the economic downturn, it is difficult for them to find work.

The refugees are being helped by supporters, but are in need of support from federal and state governments: they need permanent residency with the opportunity to become Australian citizens, Sabaratnam said.

Breen's case will continue on February 10.