UN official ‘alarmed’ by jailing of climate activist who blocked traffic on Sydney Harbour Bridge

Human rights groups around the world express outrage over ‘disproportionate’ punishment of Deanna ‘Violet’ Coco

A senior UN official has said he is “alarmed” a peaceful Australian climate protester has been jailed for 15 months – and refused bail before her appeal – amid global concern at her “disproportionate” punishment.

On Friday, Deanna “Violet” Coco was sentenced to 15 months in prison for blocking a single lane of traffic on the Sydney Harbour Bridge in April in a protest staged to draw attention to the global climate emergency.

Clément Voule, the UN’s special rapporteur on freedom of association and peaceful assembly, said online: “I am alarmed at a NSW court’s prison term against climate protestor Deanna Coco and refusal to grant bail until a March 2023 appeal hearing.

“Peaceful protesters should never be criminalised or imprisoned,” Voule said.

#Australia - I am alarmed at #NSW court's prison term against #ClimateProtester 𝗗𝗲𝗮𝗻𝗻𝗮 𝗖𝗼𝗰𝗼 and refusal to grant bail until a March 2023 appeal hearing. Peaceful protesters should never be criminalised or imprisoned.👇🏽 https://t.co/uvxN0f7Inl

— UN Special Rapporteur Freedom of Association (@cvoule) December 2, 2022

On 13 April, Coco and two fellow members of climate activist group Fireproof Australia stopped two cars on the southbound Cahill Expressway on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. They held banners and lit flares, livestreaming their protest calling for urgent climate action.

The protesters blocked one of the bridge’s five city-bound lanes during the morning peak for about 25 minutes before they were removed by police.

On Friday, in Sydney’s Downing Centre local court, Coco pleaded guilty to seven charges before Magistrate Allison Hawkins, and was jailed for 15 months with a non-parole period of eight months.

She will appeal against her sentence, however, she was refused bail on Friday and will remain in custody pending appeals. A district court bail application is set to be heard on 13 December, with her full appeal to be heard on 2 March 2023.

Coco’s lawyer, Mark Davis, said it was “outrageous” she had been refused bail before her appeal was heard, given she had been granted bail after her initial arrest, and had complied with all its requirements since.

“It is just extraordinary to me,” Davis said. “You always get appeals bail unless you’re a violent offender and you haven’t abided by the terms of your bail. In the months she had been on bail she had done everything – always attended court.”

Davis argued his client deliberately planned not to block all traffic and that other lanes of traffic were able to move southbound during the protest. Police alleged in court the protest blocked an ambulance responding to an emergency, however, Davis rejected this.

Coco had previously participated in several climate protests, including one in which an empty pram was set alight outside parliament house. A week before the bridge protest, Coco was arrested and charged for obstruction of the City West Link, also in Sydney.

Along with the UN’s Voule, human rights groups around the world have expressed concern over the criminalisation of democratic protest in Australia.

Sophie McNeill, the Australia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said it was “clear climate protesters are being targeted for disproportionate punishment”.

A Human Rights Watch investigation this year found “climate protesters … were being increasingly and disproportionately subjected to vindictive legal action by Australian authorities that is restricting the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression”.

From Geneva, Phil Lynch, the director of the International Service for Human Rights, said peaceful protest was a fundamental human right.

“Protesting for climate justice is a moral right. Australia’s criminalisation and jailing of people for exercising this right is illegal under international law and morally indefensible.”

Earlier this year, the New South Wales government introduced stringent new laws increasing punishments for non-violent protesters with larger fines and up to two years in jail. The move followed a series of climate protests that disrupted activity at key resource export ports.

The Tasmanian and Victorian state governments have passed similar laws this year.

The NSW attorney general, Mark Speakman, issued a statement Friday evening.

“The government supports the right of all individuals to participate in lawful protest and dissent – not just in the media or in social media but in public places, including street marches.

“However, the right to protest must be weighed against the right of ordinary members of the public to move about safely and freely in their day-to-day lives.”

Guardian staff

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