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This Indigenous Community Is Taking The Government To Court Over Alleged Racial Discrimination

Residents of Palm Island are demanding an apology from the government.

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The historic class action by the Palm Island community against the Queensland government over the actions of police following a riot in 2004 has resumed after a five-month adjournment.

Rebekah Ison / AAPIMAGE

Held in the federal court in Townsville, the complainants allege that Queensland police acted in an excessive manner and racially discriminatory way against the community in the wake of the Palm Island riot a week after the 2004 death of local man Mulrunji Doomadgee in police custody.

Doomadgee died in a police cell and a subsequent autopsy found he had suffered horrific and extensive injuries, including a liver that was split in two. The coroner ruled that James Hurley, the officer who had arrested Doomadgee, was not to blame for the death.

Following the ruling, tempers flared and the community took to the streets in protest and marched to the local police station which was then burnt down. Police officers on the island had to be evacuated to the mainland and the then Queensland premier Peter Beattie declared a state of emergency on the island.

Heavily armed police and the riot squad were sent to Palm Island to restore order.

The claim is being lead by Lex, Agnes and Cecilia Wotton. Lex was jailed for two years for inciting the riot.

AAP Image/Dave Hunt

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’s wife Cecilia told the court last year that their children are severely traumatised after watching their father shot with a taser gun following the riot. The children also allegedly had guns held at their heads by police officers who asked about their father’s involvement in the riot.

"My children have suffered over this period of time and we still don’t know the long terms effects on them, because we haven't had the professional support around us that we need," Lex tells BuzzFeed News.

Lex says the trial is also about preventing future Aboriginal deaths in custody.

"Since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody it keeps getting worse. More [Aboriginal] people die in custody now than then. It’s an opportunity for all of the state governments and the federal government to look at the commission's original recommendations and actually put them in place".

"If the outcome is in favour of the community it will definitely set a very important precedent," solicitor Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz, from law firm Levitt Robinson, tells BuzzFeed News.

Dave Hunt / AAP

"In that the processes the police need to follow, the way that police need to be held to account and the use of emergency powers by the police and what is justified and what isn't as well as interpretation of the racial discrimination act."

Meyerowitz-Katz is one of several solicitors representing the community and says the 'SWAT style' police response was unwarranted and would not have happened to a non-indigenous community.

"The incident that happened on Palm Island was completely unprecedented and it's never happened since. There are other communities that have come under harsh police scrutiny, but nothing on the scale of what happened on Palm Island".

The defendants are seeking three things. A declaration from the court that the response was racially motivated, an apology from the government to the community and compensation for damages and distress suffered.

The Queensland government has rejected the allegations and declined to comment on the matter.

Formerly with BuzzFeed News, Allan Clarke is a NITV reporter based in Sydney.

Contact Allan Clarke at arielle.benedek+AC@buzzfeed.com.

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