Payback warning over Palm Island

Source: The Age December 1 2004

By Ainsley Pavey, Roberta Mancuso

A row has erupted over inflammatory comments made by an Aboriginal leader.

Queensland Premier Peter Beattie yesterday called for calm as Aboriginal leaders declared war on the state's police over a death in custody on Palm Island.

Mr Beattie tried to hose down threats by Aboriginal activist Murrandoo Yanner to "pay back" police by promising to release a Crime and Misconduct Commission report on the death. "I just urge everyone to calm it down and let the CMC do its work," he said.

Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson last night considered whether to seek legal advice to determine if Mr Yanner's comments were criminal.

Officers from the CMC have returned to the island off Townsville to continue their inquiry into the watchhouse death of Cameron Doomadgee, 36.

Mr Doomadgee's family is awaiting the results of a second autopsy by an independent Melbourne pathologist. A Queensland Government pathologist found Mr Doomadgee died on November 19 with four broken ribs and a ruptured spleen and liver consistent with falling on steps. Police said he punched an officer before he fell over.

Rioters burnt down the police station and barracks and the courthouse after the findings were released by Queensland Coroner Michael Barnes. Palm Island community spokesman Brad Foster wants Mr Barnes sacked for releasing the report, accusing him of sparking the riot by more than 300 islanders.

Riot police sent to the island arrested 18 men, now in custody in Townsville awaiting a bail hearing on Monday.

Mr Yanner, a cousin of Mr Doomadgee, wants all charges dropped as an act of reconciliation. He also said the police who found Mr Doomadgee dead should be charged with murder or face "payback".

"If we're not going to get it through white law, we will take it through our own means, through Aboriginal law which has payback," Mr Yanner said.

"If this policeman isn't punished, jailed or charged with murder, under the law, (then) if you can't get one policeman you get another.

Mr Beattie, who had previously defended so-called "heavy-handed" police tactics as "appropriate", said yesterday that people on Palm Island should be given latitude.

Reconciliation Australia's outgoing co-chairman, Fred Chaney, said yesterday the riots illustrated how far Australia had to go in the reconciliation process.

Mr Chaney, a former indigenous affairs minister in the Fraser government, said the frustration of people on Palm Island was understandable. "I'm not excusing unlawful behaviour," he said, "but I think it's not hard to understand why people become immensely frustrated."

Mr Chaney said the Government needed to work with representative bodies that gave Aboriginal people a voice.

A failure to engage would lead to a continuation of "these terrible blots on our national life".

"How many Redferns do we have to have? How many Palm Islands... before we realise there is something drastically wrong?" Mr Chaney asked.

- with Meaghan Shaw