Police-state intimidation of activists continues

Friday, May 25, 2007

Tom — not his real name — became a "person of interest" after taking part in the G20 protests in Melbourne last November. This softly spoken 24-year-old, a postgraduate student at Sydney University, is one of the latest victims of the police-state laws that seem designed to intimidate activists from organising, or attending, protests.

Unbeknown to Tom, he was videoed by the police at G20 and this is now being used to pursue charges against him, charges he says are completely spurious.

Tom, who is not a member of any political party, joined the 3000-strong, largely peaceful protest in Melbourne because he has a social conscience: he's angry that the rich countries are forcing poor nations into greater misery. But it wasn't until the Sydney protest in February against the visit by US vice-president Dick Cheney that Tom was made aware he was a person of interest to the NSW police.

"About 10 NSW police officers surrounded me at the Cheney protest on the first day [February 22]. They had a folder with 27 colour photos and they told me that I was a 'wanted person'. They had me on the ground, demanded my ID, and were not fussed about roughing me up", he told Green Left Weekly.

Having checked his ID, the officers let Tom go — apparently it wasn't him they were after — but with a warning not to come back into the CBD for the following day's protest "or else there'd be trouble". "They were obviously searching for an excuse to arrest me [at the Cheney protest] but couldn't come up with one", he said.

Tom left and did not return to the next day's protest, at which the NSW police snatched two protesters and trampled over many more, including veteran peace activist Marie McKern, who was taken to hospital with cuts and bruises.

Three weeks later, on March 14, Tom's house was raided by police. At 6am, a combination of federal, NSW and Victorian police banged on the door demanding to be let in. Similar scenes were taking place at four other houses in Sydney.

The Melbourne Herald Sun sensationalised the raids, running a front page story with mug shots of the students whose homes were raided.

The police were in Tom's house for two-and-a-half hours. "They ripped my place apart — obviously looking for evidence to charge me with something", and they videoed everything. The officers were from the Victorian Crimes Unit, the NSW Counter Terrorism Coordination Command and the Australian Federal Police.

"They went through everyone's rooms, pulled out our clothes, pulled apart the shelves, the books, checked our union memberships [Tom is a member of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union], checked out my blood tests, my T-shirts and CDs, filmed all my political materials and seemed to be particularly interested in a cutting I had of the [US peace activist] Scott Parkin."

Parkin, a US peace activist, was detained by federal police on September 10, 2005, and kept in solitary confinement until he was forcibly deported on September 15 on the grounds that he was a "threat to national security". There is some speculation that his deportation was designed to test the reaction to the "anti-terror" laws being introduced around the same time.

He has attended community pickets organised by Workers Solidarity and, when resident in Victoria, by Union Solidarity. "The police were very interested in [videoing] the leaflets about this", Tom said.

Tom has been slapped with some 14 charges, including resisting arrest, affray, misconduct and endangering the public. He will appear in court in Victoria on August 31, along with 22 others. Tom is also alleged to have caused a "serious injury" to a police officer at G20, something he said never happened. But since G20 Tom has been manhandled by the NSW police, including being pinned to the ground and sustaining massive bruising to his forearms.

Those charged after G20 who reside in Melbourne are not allowed to leave the state for the duration of the case, which could last up to two years. They have been forced to hand in their laptops and mobile phones, and their SMS messages, including personal texts, have been released to the prosecution lawyers. Their phones have also been tapped.

Some of the accused are minors and will appear in the Children's Court: one is just 15 years old and three are 17. They have been warned in the meantime not to speak with each other or any of the co-accused.

Tom has had his passport confiscated and can travel only between Melbourne and Sydney. He has to stay away from all points of international departure until his trial is over.

Initially, he had to check in with the local police every day; now it's once a week. The local area commander has made it clear that the police will not tolerate certain left groups and has warned him not to join any. The police also indicated to him that they intend to make sure that "people of interest" will be prevented from joining in any protest during the APEC summit in Sydney in September.

Frank Walker and Kerry-Anne Walsh reported in the May 20 Sun Herald that legislation is about to go to the NSW parliament to allow police to arrest "prohibited people" and hold them without bail for the duration of the APEC summit.

The new laws will apparently "include the suspension of normal bail provisions, new powers to do random searches and ban 'prohibited' people from restricted zones". NSW police minister David Campbell is reported to have said that police would be able to arrest anyone who does not obey police orders to disperse or leave an area and that they would be jailed until APEC ended.

These unprecedented police powers are consistent with the heavy-handed approach that the NSW police are now renowned for. In 2003, when thousands of high school students took part in walkouts to protest the pending invasion of Iraq, the NSW police, on orders from then premier Bob Carr, launched a campaign of intimidation. Carr sent letters to all school principals demanding that students be disallowed from leaving the school grounds to exercise their social conscience. The NSW police were given instructions to go in hard against the young protesters.

Since then, the police and special branch, in collaboration with the state government, have been on a permanent campaign to scare people away from protests, particularly those against world leaders associated with the wars of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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