Thirteen people arrested and charged with riot following the G20 protest in Melbourne in 2006 have resolved to fight the charges. Another four people facing riot charges in the Children’s Court are also pleading not guilty.
Desperate to get convictions, and to try to divide the defence campaign, the Victorian Director of Public Prosecutions had offered a deal to all 23 people charged with riot-to plead guilty in return for a guarantee that there would be no custodial sentence. Ten people accepted the deal including one cameraman, charged with riot and criminal damage, who according to reliable legal opinion would never have been convicted if the charges had gone to trial.
In a shock decision the same week, one of the protesters, Akin Sari, was sentenced to two years and four months jail (with a non-parole period of 14 months) after pleading guilty to nine charges including assault and riot. Akin, who was being held in remand for violating bail conditions, also pleaded guilty to aggravated burglary which would never have held up in court.
The draconian sentence imposed on Akin has re-focused attention on the G20 defence campaign and highlighted why it is right to fight the charges.
The police are desperate to obtain convictions to justify their demonisation of the protest and their extraordinary use of police powers following the protest. Innocent people were snatched from the streets by plain clothes police. The NSW and Federal Police APEC Taskforce plotted to use the NSW Anti-Terrorism Squad to arrest the five defendants including one minor from Sydney. The president of the Victorian Police Association called for a blanket ban on all protests.
The defence campaign provides a way to prevent the police isolating the G20 protesters, to counter the propaganda machine of the police and the Herald Sun, and to build links with unions and other campaign groups to defend democratic rights. An open political defence is also the only way for protesters to be found not guilty.
Riot is a difficult charge to prove. The police have to show that the actions of the protesters would put fear in “a person of reasonable courage and firmness” and that protesters acted with a “common purpose”. But if the police get away with riot charges in this case, it will make it easier to hit protesters with such charges in the future.
The police have gone to extraordinary lengths to track down and arrest those involved in the G20 protest. The committal hearings revealed that personal email accounts of some defendants were accessed without warrant with the consent of Optus.
Under-cover officers regularly attended weekend gigs at selected Melbourne pubs to track protesters, complete with instructions that, “Members drinking are not to drive!” Victorian Police and Federal Police Intelligence in Canberra held meetings to name likely “ring leaders” well before considering any possible offences.
The defence campaign is building. There will be a postcard campaign to support Akin.