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Rail line climate protesters win appeal on jail terms

A Queensland judge has quashed three-month jail terms handed to climate activists who locked themselves to a dangerous device in order to block a busy North Queensland rail line.

The protesters, both from Victoria and identifiable as EH and GS, received wholly suspended jail terms when they pleaded guilty in the Bowen Magistrates Court earlier this year to four offences, including trespassing on a railway and using a dangerous device to interfere with transport infrastructure.

Early last month (on 6 August) the pair, aged 21 and 23, appealed the three-month, wholly suspended after two years, prison terms imposed by the magistrate during a hearing before the District Court on the grounds the sentence imposed was manifestly excessive.

Cairns District Court Judge Tracy Fantin on Friday (28 August) granted the appeal, setting aside the prison terms and substituting fines of $1000, also ordering that no convictions be recorded.

Judge Fantin, in a just published 18-page written decision, said EH and GS were young people concerned about the impacts of climate change and involved with an activist group opposed to new coal mines.

“During the catastrophic bushfires last summer, the (pair) travelled from Victoria to Queensland to protest the proposed expansion of coal mines in the Bowen basin,” her Honour said.

“Early in the morning of 7 January 2020, they went with about 20 others to a railway line on a private road north of Bowen (200km south-east of Townsville). The line provides access to the Abbott Point bulk coal loading facility.

“There the (pair) attached themselves to a device known as a ‘dragon’s den’…and each sat either side of a 44-gallon drum filled with concrete. They each secured their arm inside a tubular steel attachment device, which had a connection pin located inside the drum.

“Once fitted, the device could only be removed in two ways: by them voluntarily releasing the clip, or the device being cut from them.

“Cutting them from the device carried a risk of injury to (them both). The (pair) and the device were within one metre of the railway line…(and) their presence stopped the operations of that railway line until they were removed.”

Judge Fantin said that when police arrived at the protest site they asked the pair to remove themselves from the device and directed them to cease trespassing on and obstructing the railway.

“They declined to do so…(and) police eventually released them from the device. They were taken to the watch house, charged and released on bail.”

The court was told the maximum sentence available for obstructing a railway and using a dangerous attachment device was two years’ imprisonment and fines of up to $6672.50.

Judge Fantin noted that during the appeal the Crown, acting on instructions from Queensland Police Service, conceded the sentence originally imposed was manifestly excessive.

“In the Magistrates Court, the police prosecutor submitted that the appropriate penalty was a good behaviour bond for a period of 12 months with a recognizance in the amount of $1000,” Judge Fantin said.

“(The prosecutor) said given the prevalence of this type of offending…it appears that fines are not acting as a sufficient deterrent.”

The presiding magistrate agreed, saying: “Yes, look, I can probably say now that it won’t be a good behaviour bond. In my view, it’s far too serious for that. Imprisonment is…not out of range, in my view, but a good behaviour bond, in my view, is just not an appropriate penalty for this sort of behaviour. Two of those offences carry a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment. And there’s obviously a degree of planning involved.”

Judge Fantin, in granting the appeal, said the magistrate had “erred by unduly fettering his sentencing discretion” by ruling out the possibility of a bond before hearing all submissions to the court, including those from the pair’s legal representatives.

“In my view, the appropriate penalty (should) have been a modest fine.”

Read the full decision.

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