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Bishop says Woomera conditions "justified mass protest"

But the actions of almost 1000 people who travelled to Woomera over Easter have been praised by Auxiliary Catholic Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn Pat Power who said the protest rightly drew attention to Australia's cruel treatment of asylum-seekers.

Bishop Power said in the case of Woomera, "conscientious acts of civil disobedience may be warranted - even morally required".

Meanwhile Immigration Minister Mr Ruddock said he had just received immigration intelligence from Indonesia suggesting asylum-seekers saw the protests as a groundswell in support for their arrival in Australia and people smugglers were using it as a selling point.

While Bishop Power said many Australians would have been concerned at scenes of some protesters pulling fences down and allegedly assisting detainees to escape last weekend, not everyone involved in the protest had taken such action.

"We also need to keep in mind that the damage done to property was minor compared to the damage done to vulnerable people who have been locked up without breaking the law."

He urged the Government to be compassionate in the aftermath of the protest.

"I am concerned at reports that many detainees who did not escape were shackled. And I am concerned that some protesters have been charged with serious offences carrying long jail sentences.

"Even those clearly 'guilty' of unruly behaviour, or of assisting detainees to escape, need to be treated fairly and with an appreciation of what they were trying to achieve. Being charged with crimes disproportionate to the actions involved would hardly be consistent with democratic principles," he said.

Bishop Power said the conditions at Woomera justified the mass protest. "It needs to be acknowledged that many important social changes in recent and long-term history have come about as a result of protest actions we may have disagreed with at the time."

Canberra Times

8 Apr 2002