No more Aboriginal deaths in custody!

Issue 

The recent conviction and sentencing of Aboriginal man Lex Wotton has brought back into public discussion the shameful continuing suffering — and death — of Australia's Indigenous people at the hands of the law.

A Crimes and Misconduct Commission (CMC) inquiry is currently underway into the police handling of an investigation into the death in custody of Aboriginal man Mulrunji Domadgee. Mulrunji was arrested on Palm Island in November 2004 by sergeant Chris Hurley, and charged with public nuisance and drunkenness. Forty minutes later he was dead — the result of massive internal injuries.

During his trial in Townsville in 2007, Hurley accepted that he must have been responsible for the injuries, yet an all-white jury acquitted him of manslaughter. He has since received compensation totalling $100,000 and been promoted, while the CMC has directed him to undergo anger management training.

Contrast Hurley's treatment with that of Wotton, the Palm Island community leader who has been jailed for alleged "riot with destruction".

Wotton was at a Palm Island community gathering when the first coronial findings into Mulrunji's death — which found that he had died as a result of a "complicated" fall — were released. Given Hurley's history of violence and the allegations by another prisoner, Roy Bramwell, that he had seen Hurley repeatedly strike Mulrunji, the Palm Island community was understandably outraged. The courthouse, the police station and Hurley's police residence were all burned down.

Wotton's role on that day was heavily contested, but it was noted, without argument, that he restrained people from taking action against the police (as opposed to the police station) and made many attempts to defuse the situation. Despite this, he was found guilty of "riot with destruction" and, on November 7, sentenced to six years in prison, with parole after two.

Andrew Boe, the counsel for the Palm Island community in the coronial inquiry after Mulrunji's death, told the ABC's Law Report on November 11 that Wotton should not have been charged. "You have to remember that the Palm Island community have had all its deprivations … [and] was faced with a situation where one of their own, who they knew well and who they knew to be happy-go-lucky, went into a police arrest situation for swearing and was dead about 40 minutes later", he said. "Not long after that, we have an official release from the Coroner's Office saying, 'Listen, as a community, please don't speculate, it's all OK, it was just an accident'."

The initial police investigation of Hurley's actions was carried out by his friend, detective seargent Darren Robinson, who found that Hurley had no case to answer. The CMC is now investigating the assertion that Mulrunji's death was "accidental", and Robinson is on "extended leave", facing disciplinary and possibly criminal charges for his handling of the investigation, according to the November 4 Australian.

The 1991 report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody made 339 recommendations to reduce incarceration rates, including that Aboriginal people should be arrested only as a last resort, not for such petty crimes as public drunkenness.

During the four years of the royal commission's investigations, 99 Aboriginal deaths in custody were reported. Since the release of the report, consecutive governments have failed to implement most of the recommendations and another 141 such deaths have occurred.

As well, the former Coalition federal government dramatically cut funding for Aboriginal legal aid services and programs dedicated to training, employing and supporting Aboriginal people.

Funding to the Western Australian Deaths in Custody Watch Committee — set up to oversee the implementation of the commission's recommendations — was also cut. Before closing down, the committee noted that most of the royal commission's recommendations had been ignored by the states.

Aboriginal people make up only 1.6% of Australia's population. At the time of the royal commission's research, Aboriginal people made up 15% of the national prison population; by November 2006, this figure had increased to 22%, while 30% of all deaths in custody were Aboriginal. Yet Hurley is the first police officer ever to have been brought to trial for manslaughter for killing an Aboriginal person.

These tragic statistics reveal that institutionalised racism is alive and well in Australia. It is urgent that all people who value human rights join the struggle for justice for Indigenous people, including an immediate halt to the federal government's racist intervention in the Northern Territory and to force every state government to implement the recommendations of the deaths in custody royal commission.

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