A class action lawsuit by the Aboriginal community of Palm Island accuses Queensland Police of racial discrimination following the death in custody of local man Mulrinji Doomadgee in 2004.
Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz, one of the solicitors representing the community says the investigation into the death of Mulrinji was “deeply flawed” and that their was “no transparency, and the people involved were not held to account.”
“There was just an extremely heavy-handed response. They sort of sent a SWAT team to occupy the island and went house-to-house pointing guns at children,” Meyerowitz-Katz said.
“This wouldn’t have happened anywhere else in Australia except for a remote Indigenous community like Palm Island where the people are powerless and oppressed and they (the police) thought they could get away with it.”
This judicial showdown between residents and authorities has been brewing for decades.
Palm Island’s history has been punctuated with government violence and abuse toward Indigenous people.
Palm Island sits off the north Queensland coast, roughly 70km north of Townsville. Dotted with palm trees and surrounded by turquoise waters, its beauty masks a grim history of dispossession and abuse.
From 1918, Palm Island became a government mission where thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who had been forcibly removed from their communities across Australia were held.
Among those sent to the island were children who were deemed “uncontrollable” by government workers and Christian missionaries, as well as single Indigenous mothers of mixed-race children.
The Island was also used as a penal institution for Indigenous people who refused to conform to the Protection Act which gave the Australian government control of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders lives.
Residents of the island were forced to work for little or no money and endured public humiliation and floggings for disobedience.
People sent to Palm Island were not allowed to leave and those who escaped were caught by police and brought back. Relatives had to gain permission to visit their loved ones on the island and people were forbidden to speak their native language or practice traditional culture. Up until the early 1970s, morning roll calls and nightly curfews were still enforced.
This culture of fear and exclusion remained in place for decades and erupted 11 years ago.
On November 19, 2004, Mulrinji Doomadgee, 36, was arrested by Senior Sergeant James Hurley for being drunk and being a public nuisance. Less than an hour later he was found dead in his cell.
Doomadgee suffered a number of injuries including several broken ribs, a haemorrhaging pancreas, a ruptured spleen and a liver that was almost split in two against his spine.
CCTV shows Doomadgee on the cell floor, writhing in pain and yelling for help.
The coroner noted that police made no attempt to help Doomadgee while he was calling out and did not try and administer resuscitation after he was found unconscious in his cell.
Officer Hurley was later charged with manslaughter and found not guilty by a jury. Hurley originally said that Doomadgee had suffered the injuries after tripping and falling on stairs. He would later say that he may have fallen on Doomadgee.
The death triggered widespread anger and the community took to the streets demanding answers.
A week after the death of Doomadgee the extent of his injuries was revealed at a public meeting where the post mortem results were read out.
A riot erupted. A crowd marched through the streets towards the police station, which was burnt down along with nearby police housing and the local courthouse.
The then-Premier of Queensland, Peter Beattie, declared a state of emergency on Palm Island and dozens of riot squad members were flown in to restore order and carry out raids on people’s homes.
Local Palm Island man Lex Wotton was arrested for inciting the riot.
In 2008 Wotton was sentenced to six years jail. He served two years before being let out on strict bail conditions, including a gag order on speaking to the media and a ban on attending public meetings without permission.
Wotton is now leading the class action suit against the Queensland government.
Wotton is claiming police failed in their duties after the death of Doomadgee and acted in a racially discriminatory way against the Indigenous population of Palm Island.
The trial started last week at a makeshift courthouse on Palm Island where a number of community members spoke. It has now moved to Townsville.
This week Wotton’s wife Cecilia told the court that her children were still traumatised after watching their father shot with a taser gun following the riot. The children allegedly had guns held at their heads by police officers who asked about their father’s involvement in the riot.
Solicitor Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz from Levitt Robinson is representing the community and told BuzzFeed News the community wants three things.
“One is a declaration from the court that what happened was racially discriminatory. Second is an order that the government apologise to the community, and third is compensation for damages and distress suffered.”
“At the moment, because it’s a representative action we’re only seeking compensation for the lead applicants Lex Wotton, Cecilia Wotton and Agnes Wotton. But if we are successful in this round then we will bring proceedings on behalf of the rest of population for compensations,” Meyerowitz-Katz said.
The trial is set to continue in Townsville until Friday and will reconvene in Cairns at a date yet to determined. The Queensland government has rejected the allegations and decline.
Ref: Allan Clarke, Buzzfeed Australia, 29 September 2015