Sam Watson: ‘Police must be held accountable’

Sam Watson.

The Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) recently released a report highly critical of the police investigation into the case of Palm Island Aboriginal man Mulrunji Doomadgee, who died in police custody in November 2004. The CMC gave police commissioner Bob Atkinson 14 days to take disciplinary action against six officers involved.

Atkinson was due to make his decision by July 2, but an injunction filed on behalf of the officers extended the deadline until July 6

Sam Watson is a leading Aboriginal rights campaigner and the Socialist Alliance Senate candidate for Queensland. He recently visited Palm Island to see the Doomadgee family following the CMC ruling.

“The Police Union has applied for an injunction to prevent Atkinson and the CMC taking legal action against the six investigating officers in the Mulrunji case”, he told Green Left Weekly.

In response, a rally was called for July 6.

“We do not believe the Police Union has the right to hold these officers above the law. There’s strong evidence they have committed serious offences, and could face charges of perjury.

“Queensland has been dominated by a corrupt, brutal police force, which was most politicised under the regime of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, but still operates to license wholesale police brutality toward Indigenous people.”

Watson called on Queenslanders to rally to support the Doomadgee family and the Palm Island community. He said the shielding of Senior Sergeant Hurley, responsible for Mulrunji’s death, must be opposed.

"Atkinson should be sacked”, Watson demanded, “and a new administration put in place, with the integrity and courage to take on the power of the Police Union."

While visiting the Aboriginal community on Palm Island, Watson attended an all-day workshop with community representatives and senior police. "We are now setting up an office of Murri Watch”, he said.

“Murri Watch workers will now have full access to Indigenous prisoners. We will also set up a proper diversionary program. Within three to six months, we should have a full Murri Watch office, so that the terrible events of 2004 need never be repeated on Palm Island.”

A high-profile Sydney legal firm is preparing to initiate court proceedings to challenge the legality of the state government's declaration of a state of emergency on Palm Island, following the people's strong response to the cover-up of Doomadgee's death. At the time, the community rose up in anger over the issue.

"The case will argue that the state of emergency was illegal”, Watson said. “If established, it could lead to a flood of court actions. During the state of emergency, a squad of heavily armed police, disguised, with assault weapons, raided houses to brutalise, terrorise, arrest and subdue the Aboriginal people of Palm Island.”

Meanwhile, following the CMC inquiry, Hurley, the police officer who arrested Mulrunji and was tried for his death (then acquitted by an all-white jury), is facing investigation over allegations he made three claims for compensation for personal possessions he lost in the so-called “riot” on Palm Island. According to the June 18 Brisbane Courier-Mail, the CMC was considering fraud charges.

Watson also condemned the Western Australian public prosecutor for refusing to lay any charges over the 2008 death of Aboriginal elder Mr Ward.

"He basically cooked to death while being transported in a prison van in the heat of the day in outback WA”, Watson said. “He was not given any food or water, or allowed to stop during the whole trip. Yet no charges are being laid. The state coroner indicated there may be further evidence that could place police in a bad light. There is now a move to reopen the coronial inquest.

"The community needs to maintain the pressure. We need to raise these issues in the coming federal election. We need to rise up and demand justice for Indigenous people, for asylum seekers, for migrants, for gays and lesbians, all the sectors who suffer discrimination in society. There should be a standing Royal Commission to investigate cases of discrimination, and to bring criminal charges where appropriate.

"People's rights need to be protected. We should follow the South African example, and establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to review all cases of victimisation by police and other authorities.”

Watson is attending the national Aboriginal rights convergence in Alice Springs over July 6-9. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people will gather from around the country to hear first-hand from communities affected by the racist NT intervention.

He said: “The NT intervention must go. Aboriginal affairs minister Jenny Macklin must be sacked. The ALP government must be held to account. This historic convergence will work out strategies and programs to challenge the intervention, and to alert the people of this country, and the global community, about the situation [Aboriginal people face] in Australia today."

He explained why he was running for the Socialist Alliance in the federal election. "Socialist Alliance campaigns for justice for all. Aboriginal people are still the most arrested and jailed, and still suffer violence and brutality in prison.

"The 239 recommendations of the 1989 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody are yet to be implemented. The high rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody has to be stopped. Police who bash and kill must be held to account.”