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Upholding human rights deemed non-essential by police

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Victorian Police issued thousands of dollars in fines and made one arrest at the protest for the rights of refugees (Screenshot via YouTube)

While consumerist pursuits were acceptable during COVID-19 restrictions, Victorian Police drew the line at a peaceful protest for refugees' rights, writes Gaye Demanuele.

IF YOU'RE WEALTHY enough to own a holiday house in Victoria, the state wouldn’t stop you from travelling to it over Easter weekend. Under COVID-19 public health restrictions, it’s permissible. Holidaymakers could enjoy a relaxing break by the seaside or in the fresh alpine air with nary a thought for those worried about being evicted from their rental homes who, due to the effects of COVID-19 economic fallout, are now rendered unable to pay the landlord.

A member of the privileged few with disposable cash to spare and not affected by job losses? No worries, the police will deem your outing to Harvey Norman to buy new electronic goods to see you through your self-isolation as an “essential” trip. According to Gerry Harvey, business is booming as he gleefully rubs his (washed?) hands together while he totes up his profits. Profits that certainly won’t be shared with a public health system experiencing shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect its essential workers.

On the wrong side of enforced COVID-19 restrictions, Victoria Police – their motto is Uphold the Right – will stop you and fine you $1,652 should you act to safely protest the imprisonment of refugees. Refugees held in detention centres and hotel rooms serving as APODs (alternative place of detention) are exposed to a high risk of contracting COVID-19 in crowded conditions where government-contracted Serco guards reportedly ignore infection control advice. 

On Easter Friday afternoon, a cavalcade of concerned people advocating for the human rights of refugees imprisoned in the Mantra Hotel, Preston, in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, gathered, with safe physical distancing observed, in their cars and on bikes in the surrounding streets. The refugees had been transferred from Manus Island and Nauru detention camps for medical treatment under Medevac legislation last year. They have been incarcerated by the Australian Government in crowded conditions, with little access to fresh air, healthy food and hygiene necessities, while waiting for medical treatment that has largely not been provided.

Along with fellow detainees in hotels and detention centres around the country, the prisoners have been protesting the conditions and expressing their fear of contracting the coronavirus. Many are suffering from chronic health conditions that heighten their vulnerability. All are suffering from trauma after years of cruel treatment.

The people on the outside who joined the protest had determined not to ignore the pleas of the prisoners. They intended to draw public attention by adding their voices to the prisoners’ demands that they be safely resettled in the community with full rights. The protesters acknowledged the importance of the use of physical distancing measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and instituted a safe way to demonstrate solidarity with the prisoners. They acted with “care and compassion”, one of the stated reasons permitted by the Victorian Government to justify residents leaving their home address, bringing with them food and soap packages to give to the prisoners.   

The police, however, used their discretionary powers to fine the protesters under COVID-19 emergency restrictions. They set up a trap in a side street where they funnelled people through a processing line. Some, not all, of the Victoria Police officers wore N95 masks and gloves, however, they all ignored physical distancing measures. 

Further, the police used their “discretionary powers” to arrest one of the Refugee Action Collective (VIC) organisers two hours prior to the protest. Police arrested Chris Breen from his home at midday. He was held at Preston Police station for nine hours while a warrant was obtained to seize computers and phones from his home. He was charged with ‘Incitement to Protest’ under a 1958 Act. The police also seized his teenage son’s computer, no stone left unturned. He reported that the police did not practice infection control precautions at any time during this ordeal.   

It is obvious that the aim of the state was not to protect public safety, the stated aim of Victoria Police’s Operation Sentinel, Operation Nexus and Operation Shielding. Victoria Police says that officers will always apply common sense in the application of public health orders. In this instance, “common sense” was missing in action. 

As one of the organisers stated:  

“Our protest would be safer than going shopping, safer than travelling on public transport, safer than non-essential work that continues and safer by an order of magnitude than being stuck in a sealed corridor in the Mantra.”

The clear intention of this policing operation was to stifle public dissent.

Inspector Tom Ebinger of Darebin Police, originally quoted in a Herald Sun article, erroneously said:

“...protest activity isn’t legal in the current environment.”

The title of the article was changed from ‘Masked refugee protesters cause stir in Preston’ to ‘A convoy of prosteters [sic] calls for refugees beings [sic] held at Preston Mantra to be released’. The article was then re-edited to correct the spelling mistakes.  

In response to police threats made prior to the cavalcade to Refugee Action Collective members, Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) issued a statement raising concerns regarding rights to free expression and peaceful association: 

MALS recognises that efforts to protect public health in the face of the coronavirus pandemic demands temporary restrictions to some individual freedoms. However, the United Nations has directed that authorities must ensure any restrictions to rights and freedoms during the pandemic are “proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory.”

 

Because of this, MALS is concerned that a protest adapted to government public health restrictions could still be quashed by police. This raises concerns regarding protesters’ rights to free expression and peaceful association, as recognised in the Victorian Charter, and their implied right to political communication under the Commonwealth Constitution. MALS also notes the lack of institutional oversight to the powers police officers have been given in enforcing the Stay at Home directions.

Community legal centres and human rights groups, nationally and internationally, are raising concerns that policing in the time of a pandemic is being used to curtail human rights and is disproportionately used against marginalised groups.

Police accountability solicitor Samantha Lee from the Redfern Legal Centre is quoted as saying that it appeared that police are ‘targeting specific groups such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as well as Muslim and African migrants — and giving warnings only to other groups’. Detained refugees and asylum seekers in Australia represent a marginalised group who have little access to have their rights recognised and realised where the Government has enacted draconian legislation to deny them their rights. 

Rather than exercising “common sense”, Victoria Police acted against protesters with a “conscious bias”, not unconscious to the import of their actions. Necessary public health restrictions during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic are being misused by the state to stifle dissent. A frightened, mostly house-bound and Tiger King-watching public is far easier to police than a community of individuals who will collectively stand up for their rights and for the rights of others. A public permitted to leave their homes only to attend “essential” work, as defined by the market – are mining, construction of luxury apartments and horse racing really essential? – or to shop for food (essential), or to pursue the capitalist imperative to purchase consumer goods, such as a new screen to view Tiger King (not essential), is a compliant public.  

Protesters who are free to use their relative privilege in our society to amplify the voices of imprisoned refugees will continue to find creative and publicly health-respectful ways to do so. This obligation is especially vital during the COVID-19 pandemic when there is even less oversight than usual of the mistreatment of prisoners and other marginalised people.

Gaye Demanuele is a member of the Close the Camps Action Collective. You can follow Gaye on Twitter @gayedemanuele and the Close the Camps Action Collective @CloseTheCamps.

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