Six Christian “peace pilgrims” who were found guilty of illegally entering the top-secret Pine Gap military intelligence base near Alice Springs have avoided jail time.
James Dowling, Franz Dowling, Andy Paine, Tim Webb and Margaret Pestorius were found guilty of entering the joint US defence facility at Pine Gap on September 29 last year. In a separate trial Paul Christie was found guilty of committing the same offence a few days later.
The activists were charged under the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act, which carries a maximum of seven years in prison. One of the group members faced an additional two years’ jail for carrying a camera onto the base.
Dozens of supporters erupted in applause and cheers in the NT Supreme Court, sitting in Brisbane on December 4, when Justice John Reeves said the group would be fined rather than sent to jail.
The Crown had argued that James Dowling should be jailed, telling the court he had committed 27 similar trespass offences since 1986. However, Justice Reeves said: "If I imprison you, I think that would be likely to make you a martyr to your cause, rather than to underscore the law breaking in which you were involved."
Justice Reeves fined the six members of the group differing amounts based on their age, criminal history and personal circumstances. He fined Dowling $5000 and Pestorius $3500, saying they should be setting an example to younger protesters.
Paine, who also filmed the group singing a Christian lament and had previously been convicted for trespassing on commonwealth land, told the court he believed “money is the root of all evil”. He was fined $2500.
Christie, who was found in a dry creek bed on the base singing and praying, was fined $2000. Franz Dowling and Webb, the youngest of the group, were each fined $1250, with Justice Reeves saying they were “young men on the threshold of your adult lives”.
Justice Reeves found the group broke the law as part of an “unlawful but relatively harmless extension of the lawful and peaceful activities you participated in the two weeks prior”. The group had been taking part in protests marking 50 years since the spy base was established.
Justice Reeves said the group trespassed onto the base knowing it was a prohibited area, to protest against war activities taking place around the world and agreed the offences were at the lowest possible end of the spectrum. The court had previously heard the group was chanting, praying and playing music on the restricted site.
Justice Reeves said: "I do not accept the Crown's submission that your offences potentially struck at the heart of national security. Your activities posed no real threat to the Pine Gap facility.”
Dowling said outside court he was simply trying to stop war crimes. “Pine Gap is guilty of massive war crimes, drone warfare and other warfare; it’s ongoing and we asked the judge to take our side. Unfortunately he took the side of Pine Gap and the war criminals.”
Dowling said the group would continue on their path of “non-violent resistance to war”: “We’ll keep going, keep doing what we’re doing and hope others will join us.”