Jury clears four Palm Islanders of 'rioting'

March 23, 2007

Scenes of joy and relief erupted outside the Brisbane courts complex on March 21 after a Supreme Court jury cleared four Palm Islanders of charges of rioting causing destruction.

The four men — William Blackman, Dwayne Blanket, John Clumpoint and Lance Poynter — were part of a larger group of Aborigines on the island, 40 kilometres off Townsville, who besieged a police station on November 26, 2004, in protest against the death in police custody of Palm Island resident Mulrunji Doomadgee a week earlier.

During the protest, the island's police station and courthouse were burned down, as was a police officer's dwelling. Fire also destroyed a police car.

During the three-week trial, police witnesses had problems identifying individual islanders and evidence indicated that the fires had already been lit before the protesters arrived at the police station.

"I believe justice has been served today, not only for me and my three brothers but also for all Indigenous people", Poynter said. "I praise the jury for that."

Socialist Alliance lead Senate candidate and prominent Murri activist Sam Watson told Green Left Weekly that the jury's verdict was a "wonderful moment" and a victory for the accused men, the Palm Island community and for all Indigenous Australians and their non-Indigenous supporters.

"This verdict represents a pivotal point in the campaign for achieving justice for Mulrunji", Watson said.

Former police officer Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley has been charged with the manslaughter of Doomadgee and is scheduled to face trial in Townsville in June. Watson is calling on people to demand that the trial be heard in Brisbane.

In 2006, a survey found Townsville residents too racist to guarantee any Aborigine a fair trial. "Townsville's white community is on par with Alabama's hateful and racist white community in the 1960s", Watson said, adding that Murri people have more confidence in justice being delivered by a Brisbane jury.

Watson is also demanding a full judicial inquiry into the actions of police on Palm Island from November 2004 up to the present day. Of particular concern was the heavy handed response days after the "riot" when masked, unidentified squads of police kicked in islanders' doors and forced children as young as four to lie face down on the ground with the laser targeting devices of police weapons trained on their heads. "Each officer must be investigated and answer for their actions", said Watson.

Lex Wotton, accused by police of being the "riot ringleader", pleaded guilty to rioting with destruction earlier this month and is awaiting sentencing. On March 21, he indicated through his legal team that he now wants to withdraw his guilty plea and face a jury trial.

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