Outrage over black prison deaths

Source: The Age November 30 2004

By Meaghan Shaw, Mark Todd

Progress in reducing Aboriginal deaths in custody had been slow, the Federal Government conceded yesterday, in the wake of the Palm Island riot.

"When you look at the fact that the inquiry into Aboriginal deaths in custody was some years ago, progress has been slow, but we will continue to work at it,"said Justice Minister Chris Ellison. He was responding to a question from the only Aborigine in Parliament, the Australian Democrats' Aden Ridgeway, who said indigenous people were 15 times more likely than the rest of the community to be jailed.

Senator Ridgeway referred to two recent race riots - at Redfern in February and Palm Island last week - that related to Aboriginal deaths in custody and anger over police relations.

But Senator Ellison said the issue was one for all governments, not just the Commonwealth.

He said he believed the answer lay in juvenile diversion programs and targeting drug and alcohol abuse.

Queensland Premier Peter Beattie yesterday defended police use of stun guns on three men after the Palm Island riot. He said officers used "appropriate" force.

Islanders have complained that police in full riot gear kicked down doors and pointed weapons at people after the police station was fire-bombed.

The court house was also destroyed and the police barracks damaged in riots following the death of Cameron Doomadgee, 36, while in police custody.

The riots began after locals were told an autopsy had found Mr Doomadgee had four broken ribs and a ruptured spleen and liver.

"I don't believe it is reasonable to expect the police to deal with these matters with one hand tied behind their back," Mr Beattie said. "When was the last time there was a police or court house burned down in Queensland?"

Eighteen people, including a boy, 14, have appeared in the Townsville Magistrates Court charged with offences including riot, burglary, arson, serious assault on police, wilful damage and going armed to cause fear. The Queensland Police Union has called for charges of attempted murder.

Mr Beattie rejected a call for the accused to be subject to community-based punishment.

A traditional court headed by Aboriginal elders exists on the island, but Mr Beattie said the matters should go through the courts.

Aboriginal activist Murrandoo Yanner called for the charges to be dropped.

A relative of Mr Doomadgee, Mr Yanner said it would be an act of goodwill.

"They are yet to make any gesture towards the families of the deceased - a man we believe to be murdered by the police," Mr Yanner told ABC radio.

The family has asked for an independent autopsy by a pathologist from Victoria's Institute of Medicine.

It is likely to delay the funeral, planned for Friday.

The day after Mr Doomadgee's death, a 36-year-old Aborigine died in custody in Normanton, in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

- with agencies