Monday, July 23, 2012

Charges against Australian Pro-Palestine solidarity activists arrested at peaceful BDS protest thrown out of court

Dear friends,

as some of you will be aware, there has been a concerted attack in the last few years on free speech and Palestine solidarity organising all over the world, including in Australia. In Australia, we saw the concerted campaign against the Marrickville Council adoption of a pro-Palestine, pro-BDS motion in 2010, with the campaign eventually resulting in the recinding of the motion. In Melbourne, 19 pro-Palestine/BDS activists were arrested on 1 July 2011 at a peaceful BDS rally of more than 120 people outside of Max Brenner Chocolate Shop.

Max Brenner is owned by the Strauss Group — one of Israel’s largest food and beverage companies. On its website, the Strauss Group emphasizes its support for the Israeli military, providing care packages, sports and recreational equipment, books and games for soldiers.

Strauss boasts support for the Golani and Givati Brigades, which were heavily involved in Israel’s military assault on the Gaza Strip in the Winter of 2008-09, which resulted in the killing of approximately 1,400 Palestinians, the majority civilians, including approximately 350 children. While Strauss has removed information about their support for the Golani and Givati brigades from their English language website, information about the company’s support for both brigades remains on their Hebrew site(for more information on the BDS protest and the arrests, see my earlier article published on Electronic Intifada here).

Today, Melbourne Magistrate Stephen Garnett dismissed the two main charges of trespass and besetting against all 16 protestors. A small number of activists also had a number of other charges against them (primarily “hindering” and “resisting” arrest) – their cases are still being heard, it is not possible to comment on them until a ruling has been made, which hopefully will be in the next day or two.

In relation to the two substantive charges of trespass and besetting, Magistrate Garnett made a copy of his ruling available to the media and the public gallery.  
I will be writing up a more comprehensive article, which hopefully I will have ready a little later this week.

In the meantime, just a few points about Magistrate Garnett’s ruling:

It should be clarified that all 16 protestors had the charges of trespass and besetting dropped against them. The Magistrate ruled that protestors had the "lawful" right to enter Queen Victoria (QV) Shopping Square (where the protest took place) without restriction and had the right to engage in protest. The Magistrate ruled that QV Square (and laneways) are a public space and that the protestors posed no threat to public order or a breach of the peace (to the extent necessary to restrict their right to protest) and that the conduct of the protestors did not promote violence. The Magistrate ruled that QV had no right to restrict the protestors access to QV on the basis they were engaged in a political protest.

In relation to the "besetting" charge, the Magistrate noted that if any restriction of movement occurred, it was not the actions of the protestors who had caused obstruction to members of the public, but the police and the police lines they established.  Magistrate Garnett went on to say that there is no evidence of any ‘hostile intent’ by any of the protestors towards members of the public in QV Square or the outside tables at Max Brenner’s.

In relation to the trespass charge, the Magistrate noted that QV has a contract with the City Council, which requires them to keep the laneways and QV Square open to the public 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The Magistrate ruled that QV therefore did not have the legal authority to apply conditions on members of the public who wished to enter QV or the laneways. The Magistrate ruled that there was no evidence to suggest that the protestors had criminal intent or were reckless as to the consequences of their acts (ie. they did not cause any criminal damage to property, did not cause a significant breach of the peace or cause a threat to public order). He also noted the purpose (ie. it was a political protest) and conduct of the demonstration (ie. that it was noisy) did not render them “wilful trespassers” and they had a lawful right to conduct a political demonstration and QV could not impose conditions of entry on them.

The dismissal of the substantive charges by Magistrate Garnett is a big win for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and pro-Palestine and social justice activism.   

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