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Lawyer assists Palm Islanders in riot case

Lawyer assists Palm Islanders in riot case

A Sydney lawyer will tomorrow (11 August) visit the Indigenous community on Palm Island to discuss options for resolving a racial discrimination complaint against the Queensland Government.The…

A Sydney lawyer will tomorrow (11 August) visit the Indigenous community on Palm Island to discuss options for resolving a racial discrimination complaint against the Queensland Government.

The complaint was brought by convicted Palm Island rioter and former councillor Lex Wotton in December 2010 on behalf of island residents seeking compensation for alleged discriminatory investigation and law enforcement by police following the 2004 riots.

Stewart Levitt, the principal of Levitt Robinson Solicitors, will seek feedback from the community on a proposal for "moderate resolution and practical outcomes", including the establishment of an Indigenous ombudsman in Queensland. The feedback will be taken to the Australian Human Rights Commission (the Commission) and put to the Queensland Government.

Levitt said the establishment of Indigenous ombudsmen would "go a long way" to ending the "unfair and high levels" of incarceration of Australia's Indigenous people.

"We should be having Indigenous ombudsmen with regional sub-ombudsmen throughout Queensland and areas where there is a substantial presence of Indigenous people ... so that Indigenous people in custody know their rights and the police respect those rights," Levitt told Lawyers Weekly.

The ombudsmen, Levitt said, should be made up of people who are not just appointed by the Government but nominated by the community and accepted by the Government as being appropriate for the job.

"This is one of the most important things in regard to the large number of indigenous deaths in custody and the fact that 56 per cent of the prison population is now indigenous," said Levitt.

Levitt, along with Aboriginal activist and Palm Island resident Gracelyn Smallwood, will facilitate community dialogue around the proposal.

In May this year, the Australian Human Rights Commission concluded that the Queensland Government had a case to answer in relation to the discrimination complaint, namely that it failed to provide services to Palm Islanders on an equal footing to services provided to other Queenslanders.

The Commission also said the Queensland Government failed to respect Palm Islanders' grief over the death in custody of Mulrunji in November 2004 and unlawfully interfered with Palm Islanders' privacy and home and family life during the two days of state of emergency declared on the island in November 2004.

Levitt described the state of emergency as an "invasion" by police which caused widespread harm.

"Police intruded upon their privacy; people had guns thrust at their heads, I'm told; there were snipers on roofs. The tale that's been described to me of what actually occurred has been widespread and there was literally nothing done by the Queensland or Commonwealth governments to provide counselling support, compensating, anything," said Levitt.

Despite the Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) Queensland finding that the state of emergency was unlawfully claimed, Levitt said that unlawful or not, it had many innocent victims and the Government had taken advantage of the "lack of capacity of the Indigenous population to adequately represent itself and defend itself at all levels of government".

"When we had the Cronulla riots in Sydney, the police didn't break into everybody's house; they didn't have snipers on roofs. The level of respect for the quiet enjoyment of life and the rights of citizens doesn't seem to be accorded equally to Indigenous people," he said.

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