New laws in Australia that target “radical protests” may be a threat to civil liberties and may also be undemocratic, a group of lawyers are arguing.
Police Minister Liza Harvey says the laws are not aimed at peaceful protestors but rather those who use devices such as thumb and arm locks. The law, which is in effect in Western Australia, have reversed the onus of proof – meaning the police can arrest anybody they think may be about to break the law.
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It will then be up to the protester to prove in court they were not going to do so.
Criminal Lawyers’ Association president Anthony Eyers said the laws violated basic civil freedoms.
“The cornerstone of criminal justice is that an accused person bears no onus to prove their innocence.
“The fact of the proposed prevention of lawful activity amendment to the criminal code is the reversal of this fundamental principle, to the extent that to disprove their presumed guilt, a person accused may be forced to give evidence, to explain their presumed intention.”
Protest law ‘could be unconstitutional’
Mr Eyers said the wording of the legislation was so broad it could be deemed unconstitutional.
“The manner and intendment and expression of the proposed legislation may inevitably raise questions of constitutionality and may potentially therefore be open for challenge in the High Court,” he said.
The legislation prohibits the possession of “things that aid in the prevention of lawful activity”.
Kate Davis from the Community Legal Centres Association of WA said the wording of the legislation was extremely vague.
“The legislation is drafted so broadly that it creates a new offence of possessing a “thing” for the purpose of physically preventing lawful activity or trespass.
“But possessing a thing could be possessing shoes with the intent to wear them to a picket line.”
Opposition Leader Mark McGowan said his party would fight the laws in Parliament.
“People have a right to protest, we’re a democracy, this is not a police state,” he said.
The WA Farmers Federation and the Uniting Church WA are among more than 25 organisations who signed a petition calling on MPs to oppose the new laws which they say criminalised protesters and “undermines the fundamental presumption of innocence”.
“Concerned citizens taking political action should not be presumed to have criminal intent,” they said.
Ms Harvey denied the legislation violated civil liberties.
“It’s not undemocratic at all, you need to get this in context. It’s about time, place and circumstance,” she said.
Nationals leader Terry Redman said his party supported the bill, meaning it is likely to pass Parliament.
The laws carry a penalty of up to 12 months’ imprisonment and a $12,000 fine.