Civil liberties under threat

Wednesday, August 17, 1994 - 10:00

Civil liberties under threat

By Jeff Sparrow

MELBOURNE — In what civil liberties campaigner Tim Anderson describes as "The most important political frame-up of the decade", the trial of the "Austudy Five" begins on August 29. The Austudy Five are charged with unlawful assembly and rescuing prisoners. These charges carry the potential of heavy prison sentences and challenge to the right to demonstrate.

At a March 1992 National Union of Students rally called in defence of Austudy grants, a 3000-strong crowd occupied the steps of the Victorian parliament. When police detained four demonstrators a large protest formed around the van in which they were held. Police then attacked the demonstration injuring a number of people.

The detained students were released by police and never charged. Some weeks later, in April, five participants in the rally were arrested in dawn raids.

At the Austudy 5 committal hearing in November 1992, police admitted that at least 1000 people could have been charged with unlawful assembly or rescuing prisoners. Yet, significantly, those charged are all members of the same political group — the International Socialist Organisation.

The Austudy Five are Mick Armstrong, Marcus Banks, Jonathon Sherlock, Jeff Sparrow and Jill Sparrow. The main charges against the Five do not arise from anything they were supposed to have done individually. The offences are collective; they relate to the actions of a protest that police only later decided was an unlawful assembly.

The Five have been charged because they took part in a rally that did not meet with police approval. If they are found guilty it sets a precedent that can potentially be used against anyone who attends a demonstration. This is especially serious in a climate in which civil liberties and democratic rights seem increasingly under threat.

Show your support for civil liberties at a rally on August 29, 9am, outside the County Court, 223 William Street, Melbourne.

From GLW issue 155