Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy activist Zellanach Djab Mara (also known as DT Zellanach) was released on May 27, after spending 26 days in custody for the minor offences of driving without a licence and “verbally disrespecting an officer”, charges that traditional owners from the area say were politically motivated.
Djab Mara was released after pleading guilty in the Ararat Magistrate’s Court. The magistrate conceded that 26 days was too long a sentence for a such a minor offence, and no fine was applied.
His release is seen as a victory for traditional owners fighting to save ancient trees on Djab Wurrung country from being bulldozed for an extension of the Western Highway in Victoria. Among the sacred trees is an 800-year-old birthing tree — more than 50 generations of babies have been born inside its trunk.
Djab Mara has been a key figure in the ongoing battle, which reached a head in June last year when the Djab Wurrung Embassy was set up outside Ararat to prevent Vic Roads desecrating the land to create a four-lane highway, which would cut three minutes off the drive to “so-called-Adelaide”. Members of the embassy have camped out for days and weeks at a time ever since.
VicRoads' original intention was to destroy 3000 trees, including more than 200 sacred trees and their habitats. The government announced in February it would amend the route, to allow a few culturally significant trees to be saved, but this was described by the embassy as “an absolute cop out”. Hundreds of trees would still be removed and many native animals, such as the stumpy tail lizard and the Mitji kangaroo, would lose their habitats.
Djab Mara was detained while defending sacred land. For the 26 days he was in custody, his supporters kept up a constant vigil outside the Melbourne Assessment Prison (MAP), to draw attention to Djab Mara’s unfair arrest and incarceration. On May 17, the activist group Muslims Say No To Australia Day broke their fast with the MAP protesters, holding iftar together.
Many of Djab Mara’s supporters have claimed his arrest was politically motivated, saying it was a strategic move to “get him off country”.
Djab Mara’s cousin, Sissy Austen said: “DT put his entire life to the side to protect Djab Wurrung country and be on the frontline … DT has dedicated 10 months to not only protecting country, but to practicing, learning and sharing culture, to raising awareness, to educating those who stop in. He has given us hope for the future … You would be ignorant not to link this incarceration of a black man with the bigger picture. … DT has been locked up at a time when we need him on the frontline the most.”
In March, protestors successfully resisted Victoria Police’s attempts to remove the embassy. Protectors will return to court on June 12 to appeal the decision of former federal environment minister Melissa Price to let the project go ahead.