Since March 2009, it has been unclear whether promising footballer Rex Bellotti Junior will need to have his leg amputated after he was run over by a police four wheel drive in Albany, Western Australia.
The Indigenous boy, then 15, was leaving a wake when the police vehicle, driving on the wrong side of the road, struck him with sufficient force to drag him under the van, breaking his right femur and inflicting lacerations to his legs.
Though severe, Bellotti Jr’s injuries did not compel the officers involved to stop and assist. They instead left the boy in the care of family and passersby. Fortunately, among them was an off-duty medic who gave him immediate attention.
Thirteen hours passed before Bellotti Jr arrived in surgery, in which time irreparable damage to his legs had already been done.
He was then transferred for treatment in Royal Perth Hospital, where he was subjected to a “random” strip search after medications went missing in his shared ward.
His family has since moved to Perth to be close to their son and campaign for justice from the state government and against the racial discrimination that permeates the justice system in Western Australia.
Neither Bellotti Jr nor other key witnesses were even interviewed by police until April 2009, more than a month after the incident — and this only after The Sunday Times had published an article on the whole debacle.
An Albany newspaper article published four days after the incident quoted police officers saying “it appeared the teenager had deliberately walked in front of the ongoing car” which they claimed had “slowed down to 40km/hr”.
For more than a month, local police involved in the incident seemingly saw no need to add further testimonies to their own. But statements taken since from other witnesses have refuted the version of events given by police.
An internal inquiry performed by the Western Australian Police Force in October 2009 concluded that while errors in police handling had occurred, it was “satisfied that every effort had been made by the WA Police to undertake a thorough and transparent investigation into these matters”.
However, the Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC) slammed these “satisfying” conclusions in November 2009. It said: “Given the injuries suffered by Rex Jr, it would be hard to accept that the lack of obtaining statements is merely ‘an oversight’.”
However, the CCC fell short of acknowledging the racist motivations behind this sickening case of injustice.
Rex Bellotti Senior told the National Indigenous Times in June 2009 that no internal inquiry would achieve justice for his son. “Police investigating police again,” he said. “At the end of the day they can exonerate each other … they’ve got each others’ backs.”
Accusations of racial discrimination to Indigenous people are hardly new for the WA police and the justice system.
Other recent scandals include the charging of a then-12-year-old Indigenous boy with receiving a 70 cent chocolate as “stolen property” in November 2009 and the ongoing Deaths in Custody Watch Committee campaign seeking justice for the family of Mr Ward, who died in horrendous circumstances in 2008 in a prison transport van.
Alongside these stands the tragedy inflicted on Rex Bellotti Jr and his family, who have been left until now without counselling services, without compensation and without a formal apology or recognition of guilt on the part of the state government or the WA police.
For Bellotti Sr, there is no doubt about the role institutional racism played in the treatment his son and family had suffered.
He told Green Left Weekly: “If I was driving a four wheel drive, like the one that I own, and ran over a young white child while driving on the wrong side of the road … and you can ask any of our Indigenous people here or in the eastern states as well … we would be considered guilty until proven innocent.
“My son and my family didn’t ask for any of this. We feel like we’ve gotten nowhere yet, but this is only the beginning.”
Supporters of Rex Bellotti Jr have demonstrated outside state parliament twice so far this year in a campaign that is expected to win wider support in the coming months.