A magistrate has thrown out police charges against two anti-coal seam gas (CSG) protesters at Metgasco’s Glenugie test site, saying they were ‘vexatious’.
Magistrate David Heilpern was scathing of the police involved in the case and said the charges were ‘innocuous’ and a waste of the court’s time. He added that he found it difficult to believe there hadn’t been political interference in the case.
On January 7 this year, some 30 protesters were arrested by a member of the police riot squad while peacefully protesting against CSG test drilling at the Glenugie site.
They were charged with either ‘pedestrian obstruct driver’ (despite the fact that no cars were present) or ‘hinder police.’
A deal was struck that two of the accused would go to court ahead of the others as a test case.
But at the eleventh hour, police dropped the original charges and laid a new charge, involving the use of Commonwealth legislation to create a new offence of ‘attempt’ to commit a traffic offence.
According to one of the defendants Alan Roberts, ‘Presumably because there were no vehicles anywhere close to obstruct, the police withdrew the original charges, then on the death knell of the six-month time limitation they laid new charges without either me or the court being properly notified.
As the magistrate himself quipped, ‘It’s like being charged with attempt to not wear a seat belt”.
Lawyer for the Glenugie Two, as they became known, Philip Wykeham, told Echonetdaily at the time that the new charges were intended to ‘stop people trying to wash car windows at intersections’.
As such it would normally carry an on-the-spot fine.
But the police came out all-guns blazing, bringing a police prosecutor up from Sydney and accommodating witnesses at a local motel at considerable expense.
The irony was not lost on magistrate Heilpern.
‘In this case I find myself asking what could possibly be the reason for continuing on with such an innocuous charge in these circumstances?
‘Why else would police risk cost orders against them, drive a prosecutor up from Sydney to run the matters, arrange police witnesses to travel from Sydney, all for an innocuous minor traffic matter,’ he told the court.
‘It is in that context that the realistic suspicion of political interference arises,’ the magistrate said.
Philip Wykeham told ABC’s PM program last night, ‘It was as though somewhere down the line somebody was having some sort of face saving exercise. And whether it was the Public Order and Riot Squad or whether it came from higher up the chain, I guess we’ll never know.’
Magistrate Heilpern concurred.
Although he eventually decided he wasn’t satisfied there was political interference, he did find that the police’s case was vexatious.
According to CSG Free Northern Rivers spokesperson Aidan Ricketts, ‘There are serious questions for the state government to answer here’.
‘Not only has the riot squad been used to impose this industry by force upon the northern rivers, there is now evidence of undue process in the way that prosecutions are being handled,’ Mr Ricketts said.
‘Somewhere in Sydney the orders were given for these fresh charges to be laid and we need to know how high up the chain of command these orders originated.
‘We know there’s been an abuse of process, we know it’s a vexatious prosecution, the court has found that, what we need to know is who ordered this process and what was the purpose.
‘Just when will the state government respect the wishes of the people of the northern rivers who by an overwhelming majority want to remain gasfield free and stop trying to force this industry onto us?’ Mr Ricketts asked.