The blood of Mulrunji draws a line in the sand

This is a draft of an article for Green Left Weekly. An audio and podcasted version of the interviews involved will be published on LeftCast tomorrow.>>
Last September, the Queensland state deputy coroner Christine Clements ruled that a police officer working on the Palm Island Aboriginal Community , Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, had caused the death of an aboriginal man, Mulrunji, while in his custody in November 2004. But when the Queensland Director of Public Prosecution later refused to lay charges against Hurley it wasn’t just the state’s indigenous community who was shocked. Clements’ coronial report was very clear on Hurley’s role, but in her review, the DPP, Leanne Clare, ruled that Hurley had no case to answer for.

State premier Pete Beattie insisted that he was powerless to overturn the decision by the Director of Public Prosecutions. . But the outcry was such that the state government prevailed upon the DPP to seek a second opinion. This she refused to do . However, since the furore continued to mount, creating a crisis for the Beattie Labor government, Clare relented and offered the government the file relating to the case.

Why the DPP ruled that Hurley was innocent of any wrong doing, is not open to public scrutiny. However, with the file now made available, Beattie appointed a former chief judge of the Queensland District Court,Pat Shanahan, to review the case.

Murunji’s family, the Queensland Murri community and their supporters have insisted that any review of circumstances of Murunji’s death should be conducted by someone independent of the Queensland judiciary and police force. Beattie ignored this appeal when he appointed Shanahan. But soon after his appointment Shanahan had to resign because of a perceived conflict of interest after it was revealed he had sat on a panel which appointed Leanne Clare to her position as Director of Public Prosecutions in the first place.

So on January 3rd this year, Queensland’s Acting Premier, Anna Bligh announced that Sir Laurence Street, the 80 year old former NSW Chief Justice, had been appointed to review the actions of the Director of Public Prosecutions. But as Bligh was keen to stress, Street “would not be reviewing the DPP and was simply providing a second opinion on the case based on the evidence”.

Lex Wotton is currently facing charges over his alleged leading role in the riots that saw the Palm Island watch house and court burnt to ground in November 2004. He says that the Palm community had to push hard to get this conducted by someone outside Queensland. “But we won’t be satisfied as a community,”he told Green Left Weekly, “until this matter actually fronts a judge and jury.

“Overall they’re holding it all together --calm and steady and hoping that things will progress in a positive manner. From what I understand from the announcement by Clare, the community had to push hard -- not only on Palm but all sectors of the community in this state had to push to get this matter put in the hands of someone outside of the state of Queensland"

Wotton points out that the four Palm Islanders who have been jailed for their role in the 2004 riot, had pleaded guilty to their charges in order to put the matter behind them. But after their initial court cases, the Department of Public Prosecutions, appealed the leniency of their sentences.

“The community on Palm,”he says,” is a very strong group of people and we are committed to making sure we get a better outcome and we appreciate the support we’re receiving. In the end its about better communities.”

But in Queensland this is still a long way off. On January 9th extra police were flown into Aurukun Aboriginal Comunity on Cape York after 300 people reacted angrily to reports that a local man had been assaulted by police. While aboriginal elders worked with the community to stabilize matters assertions by the police that no assault took place are being challenged.

As Brisbane based Murri activist, Sam Watson, told Green Left Weekly, “there is substantial forensic material available that supports the aboriginal man’s claims that he was grievously assaulted whilst in custody.” Watson also points out that senior aboriginal people are coming forward now with material clearly supporting the aboriginal man’s allegations that he was assaulted while in police custody.

“Any police officer involved in that unlawful assault needs to be identified and suspended;”he says,”and charges need to be laid. We have this extreme situation where a police officer actually fired a privately owned rifle at the crowd of people who were confronting the police station. Extreme circumstances and those extreme circumstances have to be justified.

“Aboriginal people across Australia.”Watson continued,” have lost all confidence in the capacity of the criminal justice system to address our needs. Given the fact that Mulrunji’s death in custody happened in November 2004 --we have a brother who has been buried long since and we still have the police officer who is responsible for that unlawful killing still walking scott free around Surfers Paradise. And yet aboriginal people who rose up in justifiable anger have since been charged , convicted and sent to jail for allegedly damaging public property. You can always replace bricks and mortar but we have a dead man who met his death by an unlawful assault administered by a serving member of the Queensland police force. And the deputy coroner found that Senior Sergeant Chis Hurley bashed Mulrunji to death on the floor of the Palm Island watch house and we keep asking: why hasn’t Hurley been charged? Why is he not before the courts?

“Aboriginal people and their non indigenous supporters across the community are going to have to stand squarely behind this line that has been drawn in the sand by the police on Palm Island and that line has been drawn with the blood of Mulrunji Doomagee . We are going to stand behind that line and we are going to defend that line and we will have to continue to fight for justice because unless we can force the Queensland government and the Queensland judicial system to place a very real value on the life of our brother then the life of an aboriginal person on Australian soil hasn’t any value at all.”