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The new anti-protest law that handed a climate change activist a 15-month prison term is an international embarrassment, human rights watchers say. By Royce Kurmelovs.

The sentencing of climate activist Violet CoCo

Violet CoCo with a burning pram, during a protest outside Parliament House in Canberra, in 2021.
Violet CoCo with a burning pram, during a protest outside Parliament House in Canberra, in 2021.
Credit: Supplied

Deanna “Violet” CoCo knew her fate. In March this year, the 32-year-old climate activist gave an interview about her work with the group Fireproof Australia. In the interview, she seemed to predict the 15-month jail sentence she would be handed for a 28-minute protest.

Asked about the future – as governments turned to police to target climate change protesters – CoCo diagnosed the problem and succinctly explained the implications.

“There is a lot of power in our system that is governed by capital, and specifically in the fossil fuel industry. And that capital, you know, influences our politicians,” she said.

“I expect that there is no possible way to win without that power trying to repress us. You know, I am expecting that and I’m expecting it to get a lot worse before it gets better.”

A month later, on April 13, CoCo stopped a light delivery truck on Sydney Harbour Bridge, blocking a single lane of traffic. She climbed out and lit a flare while others in the group glued themselves to the road.

Police charged CoCo with several offences, including using or modifying an authorised explosive not as prescribed and resisting arrest. CoCo pleaded guilty to the offences.

Last Friday, eight months after being charged, a period that included 21 days of house arrest and strict bail conditions, CoCo arrived at Downing Centre Court in Sydney for sentencing. Her prediction was borne out.

During sentencing, police introduced evidence claiming to show the protest had delayed an ambulance caught in traffic – a claim rejected by CoCo’s defence lawyer as not out of the ordinary for Sydney morning traffic.

 

When handing down her sentence, Magistrate Allison Hawkins showed no leniency. She gave CoCo a 15-month jail sentence and a $2500 fine, describing her as emotional and childish and saying her actions had let an “entire city suffer”.

“You do damage to your cause when you do childish stunts like this. Why should they be disrupted by your selfish, emotional actions?” she said. “You are not a political prisoner, you are a criminal.”

Crucially, Hawkins also denied CoCo bail. Unusually, Hawkins heard both the sentencing submissions and the bail application – normally different magistrates hear these submissions separately.

Despite CoCo’s lawyers saying they wished to appeal against the sentence, Hawkins refused bail – a decision normally reserved for only the most violent offenders. Had her lawyers not been able to secure an appeal hearing, expected to take place on December 13, CoCo would have spent Christmas behind bars.

 

The reaction was instant. Sky News initially reported the story with the headline “ ‘Selfish emotional actions’: Judge lashes climate protester before thrown in jail”. It described CoCo as a “serial climate change protester who brought the city to a standstill”. The decision also sent shockwaves through the New South Wales legal fraternity as it effectively set a standard for the 22 other cases working their way through the court system.

It stunned human rights organisations. Clément Voule, United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association, said he was alarmed at the refusal of bail: “Peaceful protesters should never be criminalised or imprisoned.”

As the climate movement mobilised to hold support rallies in capital cities across the country, on Monday the sentence was met with bipartisan approval by the political leadership of NSW.

“If protesters want to put our way of life at risk, then they should have the book thrown at them and that’s pleasing to see,” Premier Dominic Perrottet said.

“We want people to be able to protest but do it in a way that doesn’t inconvenience people right across NSW. My view is that those protests literally started to grind our city to a halt.”

Labor leader Chris Minns echoed his counterpart, saying CoCo had a “criminal history” and that in “free societies” there is “a context and a set of circumstances” that will be met with a “legislative action”.

Josh Pallas, president of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, takes the opposite view. “It’s a Pyrrhic victory for the government,” he says. “This particular matter has energised many more middle-class people, that would have never otherwise been outraged by what’s happened to protest before.”

 

As NSW politicians were attempting to paint CoCo and her fellow activists as criminals, the climate movement was working to make her a martyr.

On Tuesday, after her incarceration, CoCo explained her reasons for engaging in climate protest with a statement published as part of a Chuffed campaign to raise money for her legal defence.

“I respect the law and do not want to break the law, however, community leaders have pointed out that it is time to protest, as all other channels have failed to have this situation taken seriously,” she said.

“But make no mistake – I do not want to be protesting. Protest work is not fun – it’s stressful, resource-intensive, scary and the police are violent.”

Until 2018, she explained, she had lived a relatively quiet life, running her own business, studying management and philosophy at university, running a community theatre group and helping her sister raise a child.

Around that time she became aware of the science behind climate change and, confronted by its implications, felt compelled to act.

It wasn’t until August 2021, a day after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report on the physical science underpinning climate change, that CoCo first came to public attention.

She had been among eight Extinction Rebellion protesters who targeted Parliament House and the Lodge in a series of protest actions. CoCo began by setting fire to a pram and gluing herself to the pavement. With the public entrance to parliament as a backdrop, the flames grew large as she made a plea to the camera.

“We want to save our kids,” she said. “I want to be a mum and I can’t be a mum because this government is refusing to act on climate. We must act now – our children and our planet is in distress.”

It was a hammy performance but the imagery quickly went viral. For that action, CoCo spent two weeks in jail, a price she had been willing to pay to get people to talk about the report. As proof of its effectiveness, she pointed to another report by the IPCC released a few months later that was barely reported on by the Australian media.

Six months on, CoCo broke away from Extinction Rebellion and began participating in actions organised by splinter groups Fireproof Australia and Floodproof Australia.

The groups were Australian spinoffs from Extinction Rebellion but were also separate from the more militant Blockade Australia. Where Extinction Rebellion engaged in performance art as protest and Blockade Australia attracted the most militant members of the environmental movement, Fireproof and Floodproof Australia had more pragmatic, tangible goals. CoCo called this “the strategy of no-brainer demands”.

At the time, the group was planning what they called a “concentrated action period” from April 1, and though she understood the risks were real, she believed they were necessary.

 

The action planned in March put CoCo and other activists on a collision course with anti-protest laws that were rushed through NSW parliament.

These laws punished anyone who blocked or disrupted a road, tunnel, bridge or major facility without prior authorisation with up to two years’ imprisonment and/or a fine of $22,000.

As Guardian Australia later reported, among those who voted in favour were CoCo’s uncle, Alister Henskens, NSW Minister for Skills and Training and a factional ally of Dominic Perrottet.

Ministerial records also show that in the days leading up to the bill’s passing, Deputy Premier and Police Minister Paul Toole also met representatives from the NSW Minerals Council to “discuss industry issues”. When contacted by The Saturday Paper, Toole would not say what was discussed.

“I attended a meeting with the NSW Minerals Council in my capacity as minister for Regional NSW, with responsibility for Resources, not in my capacity as minister for Police,” Toole said.

The Saturday Paper also contacted the NSW Minerals Council but did not receive a response by time of publication.

With more cases working their way through NSW courts, human rights groups warn that the precedent being set by Australia’s most populous state has implications far beyond its borders.

Sophie McNeill, journalist and researcher with Human Rights Watch, told The Saturday Paper she “thought it was a mistake” when she heard about the sentence.

“When Australia sends [to prison] activists who have committed the ‘crime’ of holding a protest – an ‘unauthorised illegal’ protest – that sends a terrible message to our region,” she said.

“This kind of ridiculous targeting of climate protesters in NSW does not help the important work Penny Wong is doing in the region right now to bring countries onside against the rise of authoritarianism.

“We’re trying to highlight the importance of democracy and rule of law and yet, at home, this is an embarrassing, embarrassing look.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 10, 2022 as "Jailed for action".

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