Premier ‘pleased’ with jail term for bridge protester

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NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet has welcomed the stiff jail term for a climate protester who blocked a lane on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Deanna “Violet” Maree Coco was sentenced in Sydney’s Downing Centre Local Court on Friday to 15 months’ jail for a protest conducted in April as part of a Fireproof Australia movement.

She was sentenced to a non-parole period of eight months, expiring on July 31, 2023, for breaching traffic laws by blocking traffic, possessing an orange flare in a public place, and resisting police after being asked to move on. She was also fined $2500.

Her full prison sentence stretches to February 31, 2024.

The sentence has been criticised by human rights groups and Clément Voule, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Peaceful Assembly. At the weekend, Mr Voule tweeted that he was “alarmed” and “peaceful protesters should never be criminalised or imprisoned”.

On Monday, Mr Perrottet said the sentence was “not excessive” because the protest had inconvenienced people.

“If protesters want to put our way of life at risk, then they should have the book thrown at them and that’s pleasing to see,” he said.

Coco, 22, was part of a two-car convoy that disrupted peak-hour traffic at about 8.30am on April 13 to raise awareness of climate change.

The protest also prevented an ambulance with lights and sirens blazing from reaching an emergency, police said. The court was also told that the protest, which was live-streamed on social media, used significant police resources.

ACT independent senator David Pocock also weighed in on Coco’s sentence on Monday. has taken a more nuanced view.

“The right to protest is fundamental to our democracy. Many of the rights we now take for granted were off the back of people willing to risk their civil liberties to raise their concerns and push the conversation on issues that affect all of us,” he said.

“We look to China and Iran with disbelief at how protesters are treated abroad. But democracy is fragile and ours is not immune.”

Senator Pocock, a former Wallabies player, was arrested after chaining himself to mining equipment in a protest against a NSW coal mine in 2014, while still on the national rugby team.

Last week, Coco’s lawyer Mark Davis said he was disappointed with the sentence and had already challenged it on appeal.

“We are extremely disappointed in this outcome. This is the first person to be imprisoned under the new Roads Act amendment …. which is essentially being properly seen as an anti-protest law,” he said.

The amendments, which passed NSW Parliament in April, created new offences for activities which disrupted or damaged major roads or public facilities.

Also on Monday, NSW Labor leader Chris Minns said he did not regret supporting the laws, despite opposition from some of his backbench.

“At the end of the day, you’re talking about a situation where mass protests were shutting down half the city and in a repeated fashion,” he said.

“I think most people would appreciate that even in free societies there’s a context and a set of circumstances [and] when you inconvenience literally hundreds of thousands of people as often as possible in consecutive days there will be legislative action in relation to that because it’s not just inconvenience, it could be a situation where people are put in life-threatening circumstances, not being able to access emergency services right when they need them.”

An appeal of the sentence will be heard in the District Court on March 2. Mr Davis said he would make another bail application in that court after attempts to secure Coco’s freedom were rejected by the Local Court.

Sophie McNeill of Human Rights Watch slammed the court’s “outrageous decision” on Twitter.

Human Rights Watch previously examined Coco’s case in May, she wrote.

“We found climate protesters like her were being increasingly and disproportionately subjected to vindictive legal action by Australian authorities that is restricting the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression.”

Rallies in support of Coco were held in Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane on Monday.

-with AAP

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