Indigenous water defender demands court hearing in Wilcannia

Artists Bronte Naylor, Tom Horne and Rix Lee were inspired to paint this mural after visits to Wilcannia for the Corroboree Festival and then the bridge protest opened their eyes to the plight of the river

Leah Ebsworth, a Barkindji woman from the far-west NSW town of Wilcannia, faced the District Court there on October 21 charged with not moving off a bridge when ordered and assaulting a public officer with water after a Local Court dropped charges of being drunk and disorderly and not obeying a move on order.

The charges came after 30 water activists and locals blockaded the Barrier Highway bridge over the Darling River at Wilcannia on March 13, in protest at the theft of water by agribusinesses upriver.

After most activists had moved off the bridge following police demands, a group of 10 Indigenous women, including Ebsworth, continued to occupy the bridge for a further hour, conducting Indigenous Women’s Business by painting a banner with cultural motifs. They were carried off the bridge by police.

Several other women were charged, including activist Caroline Kirk, a Ngemba Gomeroi woman from Bourke, further upriver. At Kirk’s court hearing on July 22, she pleaded “Not guilty”, claiming to be “Under Sovereignty as a Native Title applicant/Displaced Peoples’ Lands”. She quoted the case R v Isaacs (1987) on Displaced Peoples’ Lands and the prosecutor dropped all charges.

Kirk, now living in Tenterfield, northern NSW, was present at Ebsworth’s Local Court hearing on September 23, and the District Court hearing to demonstrate solidarity. North Coast Water for Rivers NSW activist Mark Merritt was also there. Ebsworth pleaded “not guilty” to all charges.

The police prosecutor tried to have the next hearing moved to Broken Hill, 200 kilometres to the west, to avoid the cost of transporting and accommodating police witnesses.

Upon hearing this, Ebsworth joined Kirk outside the courthouse, to loudly protest the injustice of moving the hearing far from Ebsworth’s traditional land and the support of the Barkindji people. Perhaps due to their protest, the magistrate denied the prosecutor’s request, and set the adjourned hearing for May 20, at the historic Wilcannia Courthouse.

Ebsworth told Green Left she was glad the hearing will be held in her home town, but was unhappy about the long wait for the next hearing.

She also said that, as a result of her demand at the previous hearing that arresting police provide written statements, rather than simply make verbal statements by video link, she noted that none of the police statements were the same.

She was sent the police statements by the Aboriginal Legal Service, however, as she is illiterate, a supporter, Cath Eaglesham, read the statements to her just before her court hearing.

Kirk said that Ebsworth had told her that when she was a child, her elders had said that one day the river water would be taken away. Outside Kirk’s court hearing, Ebsworth said to journalist Otis Filly of HomeLandings Media: “That’s all I’m here for, is my Barka and the Barkindji … What we are fighting for, we need water, we need food … they can’t take it when we all own it. We need [the water] to run. I’m standing up for my community, the Darling. I’m 43 now [and] I’ve been here in this little town since I was two. I’m not going anywhere.”

Water activists will gather again in solidarity with Ebsworth outside the Wilcannia Courthouse on May 20 in 2021.

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