Australia: Racism rules in Australian courts

FRFI 206 December 2008 / January 2009

On 24 October 2008 Aboriginal Australian Lex Wotton was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment in Townsville District Court for ‘inciting a riot with damage’. Wotton was one of a number of members of the Palm Island Aboriginal community who took part in burning down the police station, the attached courthouse and part of the police barracks following the death in custody of local man Cameron Doomadgee (now known as ‘Mulrunji’ – the Dead One) in November 2004. Mulrunji was arrested by Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley for public nuisance and was dead an hour later. The ‘public nuisance’ Mulrunji was making consisted of drunkenly singing ‘Who let the dogs out?’ while he walked past Hurley’s police van while Hurley was in the process of arresting another Aboriginal man. Mulrunji, then 36, had never been arrested by Hurley before and had no criminal record. Mulrunji died from massive internal injuries including a ruptured spleen and having his liver ‘almost cleaved in two’.

The initial inquiry into Mulrunji’s death was conducted by two of Hurley’s fellow officers, Stephen Kitching and Darren Robinson, the latter of whom is a friend of Hurley’s. Hurley picked up both officers from the Palm Island airport on the evening of the death and had them round for dinner and beers at his house.

A few days later there was an official announcement on the island that Mulrunji’s death was an unfortunate accident. In reaction to this announcement, the community set fire to the police station and ordered the police to leave the island. No police officers were injured during the riots, though one claims to have obtained a bruise on his hip when something was thrown at him. At any rate, all officers present during the riots have been heavily compensated by the Queensland government, (including a A$100,000 payout to Chris Hurley), as well as being awarded ‘bravery medals’.

Due to the attention brought to Palm Island by the riots, Hurley became the first police officer in white Australian history to be charged with the death of an Aboriginal prisoner in his custody. The charges followed a two year coronial inquest which concluded that Hurley caused Mulrunji’s death, and also that his arrest of Mulrunji was an inappropriate use of his powers.

Despite the coronial report and the overwhelming forensic evidence, Hurley was found not guilty of manslaughter or assault by an all-white jury in Townsville, a military base and a particularly racially divided town in far north Queensland. No disciplinary action has been taken against Hurley and he has recently been promoted to inspector.

In stark contrast, Lex Wotton has now been sentenced to six years in custody and the Palm Island community continues to suffer from Mulrunji’s death and from ongoing police brutality. Mulrunji’s mother died one week after Mulrunji; his only son Erik committed suicide one year later, as did Patrick Bramwell, the Aboriginal man who was in the cell with Mulrunji as he lay dying.

Despite the government apology to Aboriginal Australians late last year, the racist colonial policies which have been violently enforced on Aboriginal people since the white invasion are very clearly still in practice in Australia.
A demonstration took place outside the Australian High Commission in London on 6 November as part of International Solidarity Day for Lex Wotton. To get in touch with the campaign please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Sarah Keenan