Australian environmental and international solidarity campaigner Natalie Lowrey was arrested and detained for six days in Kuantan, Malaysia for standing with Malaysian activists campaigning against Australian company Lynas Corp's toxic rare earth refinery near that city.
At a peaceful protest of more than 1000 people outside the Lynas plant on June 22, 16 protesters were arrested and a number were injured by police, one very severely. Lowrey was released with no charge on June 27, the other 15 protesters faced court on July 8 on a variety of charges. She has since returned to Australia.
Lynas mines rare earths at its Mount Weld mine in Western Australia and then exports the ore to Kuantan, in the state of Pahang, where it has built the world's largest rare earth refinery. The refining process of rare earths (which are used in smart phones, laptops and certain “green” technologies) produces tonnes of toxic and radioactive waste. The 700,000 people that live within a 25km radius of the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) never agreed to this development and there are no adequate environmental impact studies or waste disposal plans.
Lowrey spoke to Green Left Weekly in Sydney on July 8.
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What are your thoughts today as the 15 Himpunan Hijau (Greens Assembly movement) activists face court?
I am sad that it is proving quite difficult to get much media coverage about this case in Australia even though this is about the actions of an Australian corporation. Unfortunately it is still seen by most of the Australian media as “Malaysian issue” and not an Australian one.
This just means we have a lot more work to do about Lynas as well as other Australian corporations that are acting against the interest of communities in other countries.
What charges are the 15 facing?
Nine, including Himpunan Hijau chairperson Wong Tack, are charged under the Section 145 of the Penal Code (breaching “peaceful assembly”), five are charged under Section 147 (“rioting”) and one – the person who was most severely injured by the police – is charged under Section 353 (“using criminal force to deter public servant from carrying out duty”).
I was also charged under Section 145, though those charges were dropped. This carries a fine of up to about A$3,500. I was also briefly threatened with the “rioting” charge which can carry a two-year jail term.
I witnessed the attack on the protester who is facing the most serious charge. He was hospitalised.
Before I was arrested for peacefully sitting down with other protesters. Five people had been arrested 30 minutes before when the police became very aggressive. People were pulled to the ground and dragged and this protester was kicked and punched over and over again until he nearly lost consciousness.
He was assaulted by about five police, some uniformed and some plainclothed. I was standing right there and called out to them to stop.
This was a very emotional moment and it was then that I decided to sit down with other protesters and risk arrest.
He was then taken to a truck with other arrested protester who later were heard calling out for help because he was losing consciousness. The police then got into that truck and started beating the arrested protesters with knuckle-dusters.
After I and others were arrested we were taken to a different truck but later moved to the same truck in which the assaults had taken place. I saw that the protesters who were beaten up were handcuffed so they had no way of protecting themselves when they were beaten up in the truck. One of them had a big swelling in the back of his head. Photos have been taken of all the injuries and they have been sent to the Malaysian human rights commission.
By that time the most seriously injured protester had been taken to hospital by the ambulance. This is why the blockade dispersed.
When we were taken to the Kuantan police station after our arrests other protesters gathered outside the station. They were then attacked by pro-Lynas thugs and the police let this happened.
Himpunan Hijau and the human rights group SUARAM lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commissioner of Malaysia, James Nayagam, on July 2 about the police violence during the 622 Shut Down Lynas protest on June 22 and negligence of duties by police in protecting civilians from pro-government gangster attacks in front of the Kuantan police station.
What is your opinion about the charges against the 15?
I was released without charge so all the charges against the 15 should be dropped. It was a totally peaceful protest that was carried out to protect the environment and future generations in Malaysia.
What I have read about today's hearing is that it is just the start of a longer protest. However, according to a post on the Himpunan Hijau Facebook page:
"A gag order had been issued as a condition for bail! The 15 accused are not allowed to talk to any third party nor communicate in social media on this case.
“This order is a violation of the basic rights of every citizen to freedom of expression as provided in the Federal Constitution of Malaysia."
The 15 have had to post bail of RM2,500 each, a total of RM40,000 which is equal to about A$13,200.
The real crimes against society are being committed by Lynas and it is Lynas and its CEOs who should be charged. And also the Malaysian government which allowed this toxic plant to be built and begin operation without proper safeguards or community consent. They have abused the laws. Some of the police should be also charged for assaulting the peaceful protesters.
The 622 Shut Down Lynas Blockade. Photo by Natalie Lowrey.
Natalie Lowrey at the 622 Shut Down Lynas Blockade. Photo by Damian Baker.
Photo by Natalie Lowrey.
Natalie Lowrey addressing the peaceful blockade of Lynas. Photo by Keow Wee Loong.
Natalie with Isaiah Jacob, who walked all the way from KL to Kuantan.
Natalie in the Kuantan police lockup. Photo by Keow Wee Loong.