Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Socialist Alliance endorses joint statement against anti-protester law

The Socialist Alliance state committee has endorsed this Joint Statement by a number of organisations raising concerns about the anti-democratic character of the Barnett government's proposed new anti-protest laws:
On behalf of our staff, members and communities we represent, we the undersigned organisations are gravely concerned by the Criminal Code Amendment (Prevention of Lawful Activity) Bill 2015 and the implications it has for advocates, activists and concerned citizens.

Our first concern is the criminalisation of protest. Australians have a long, proud history of peaceful demonstration, which has been instrumental in securing the rights that many of us now take for granted; the right to vote, to a fair wage for a fair day’s work, to a fair price for produce for farmers, and those longstanding campaigns to protect the beautiful places we love, from the Franklin River to the Ningaloo Reef.

We are concerned that the punishments defined in the bill, up to $24000 or 24 months’ imprisonment, will act as a deterrent to lawful and peaceful protests; inhibiting our ability and the ability of all Western Australians to stand up for the people, places and activities they love and to have their voices heard.

Secondly, reversing the onus of proof undermines the fundamental presumption of innocence. Concerned citizens taking political action should not be presumed to have criminal intent. We are concerned that the law is so broadly drafted as to be open to misuse. In criminalizing the possession of a "thing", this law creates a very wide crime and is a threat to civil liberties.

Peaceful demonstration has played an important role in shaping our modern society and we foresee dire consequences of stifling the right to engage in such activity. We are calling on all our parliamentarians to oppose this bill in order to protect our fundamental rights and values.
Some of the reasons for concern that have been identified are listed below.

Many people and community groups oppose the Criminal Code Amendment (Prevention of Lawful Activity) Bill 2015. Here is a summary of the reasons why:

1. This bill criminalises peaceful protest.  People all over the world and throughout history have engaged in non-violent direct action to establish rights and protect beautiful places. 

2. This bill applies on private land and on public land. This means that a farmer ‘locking the gate’ to fracking could be convicted of the offence of physically preventing lawful activity, for protecting their own farm.

3. This bill creates an offence of possessing “a thing” to be used for preventing lawful activity or trespass.  This can apply to literally any thing. This criminalises the possession of ordinary everyday items, and is so broad it could apply to the possession of a pair of shoes.

4. This bill reverses the onus of proof. In ‘circumstances giving rise to a reasonable suspicion’, anyone charged would have to prove that they did not intend to prevent lawful activity.  The presumption of innocence is a fundamental principle of our law, and should not be removed for peaceful protesters.  If you were charged would have to prove a negative, about your own thoughts.

5. This legislation uses very broad terms to create new criminal offences. The offence relates to preventing any “lawful activity”, and to any “thing”. Criminal offences should be drafted specifically to target a crime, not as broadly as possible.

6. Current laws already give police power to charge people for trespass, to issue a move on notice, and to charge people for failing to comply with a move on notice.  Move on notices can be issued pre-emptively if police are concerned an offence is going to be committed.  There are already a range of offences specific to protesting in forests and on mine sites. Police can already charge activists with ‘conspiracy’ to commit offences.

7. The bill proposes that a Court can order an individual to pay the cost of police or others removing a physical barrier to lawful activity.  Costs of policing are not passed on to people who commit serious crimes such as murder or rape, and peaceful activists should not face these costs.

8. This bill sets penalties at 2 years in prison and $24,000 fine. Many protesters have received spent convictions, after convincing the Court that they were motivated by the public interest, and were otherwise law abiding citizens.  Peaceful protestors do not deserve jail.  This penalty is disproportionate to the crime.

9. The bill is badly drafted. As well as very broad undefined terms, it includes circular sections imposing higher penalties, and includes a definition of “physically” prevent which seeks to include things well outside the normal definition of “physical”.  Poorly drafted legislation can easily be misused.

10. Creating an offence of ‘possession of a thing’ could lead to police routinely searching or strip searching peaceful protesters. This would be an oppressive response to peaceful protest.