Violet Coco: Climate activist’s jailing ignites?

Deanna Coco “Violet”, a 28-minute-long blockade of rush hour traffic at the Sydney Harbour Bridge in April, called for more climate action.

These 28 minutes could have cost her a 15 month sentence in jail.

Coco was sent to prison last week by an Australian judge after she pleaded guilty for violating traffic laws and lighting a flare.

Magistrate Allison Hawkins claimed that the climate activist had made “entire cities suffer” through her “selfish emotional actions.” When you engage in childish acts such as this, you can do serious damage to your cause.”

Coco will be eligible for parole within eight months. But her lawyer intends to challenge the sentence. He says it is “extraordinarily cruel” and “baseless”.

“There are five lanes to that bridge. Mark Davis said to the BBC that she blocked one of them. He noted that her accomplice escaped prison.

“This is almost a new precedent.”

The court’s decision quickly caused uproar. There were small protests across Australia. The sentence was condemned by some politicians and human rights groups.

Sophie McNeill, Human Rights Watch researcher said that this case sends a terrible message across the globe.

She stated that “We’re always asking these authoritarian government to treat peaceful protesters respectfully and not jail them… [But] a country such as Australia – who should lead on human rights issues in the region, a democracy – is also jailing peaceful activist.”

Clement Voule was the UN’s special UN rapporteur on peaceful assembly and stated that Coco’s sentence had “alarmed” him.

He said, “Peaceful protesters shouldn’t be criminalised or imprisoned.”

Others disagree. There has been much debate in Australia over whether activists, peaceful or not, should be allowed to disrupt the businesses and lives of ordinary Australians.

New South Wales (NSW), state government stated it is “on side of climate action”, but could not allow “a few anarchist demonstrators to bring this city to a standstill”.

Premier Dominic Perrottet applauded Coco’s decision to imprison him, saying this week, “If protesters want put our way of living at risk, then the book should be thrown at them.”

David Shoebridge was a political opponent and countered with: “Wait to the premier hears from how badly climate change is putting our way of life at danger.”

Alister Henskens who is Coco’s uncle, a minister with the state government, welcomed the decision and said “nobody can be above the law”. Social media was full of similar comments from both sides.

Coco stated that she did not want to be protesting this way, but that it was necessary because of the climate emergency.

“It’s not easy and it’s not enjoyable, but it’s necessary because lives depend on it,” she stated.

However, some people argue that Coco’s story is really about a larger crackdown against protests across the country.

She was one of the first people to be sentenced under state laws, which introduce harsher penalties for protests regarding critical infrastructure, such as roads, rail lines and bridges.

Victoria and Tasmania had earlier in the year introduced laws that increase jail sentences for certain types of obstructive actions and fines.

There have been many controversy points during the pandemic period. Hundreds were arrested for violent offences while protesting against Australia’s tight lockdown rules.

Another instance saw two women, who had organized a peaceful Black Lives Matter march through Melbourne, be taken to court for violating the public health rules.

Ron Levy (politics and law researcher) says such crackdowns will undermine some Australians’ faith that the country has liberal democratic protections.

He says Australia is a utilitarian country that values the “public interest” more than individual rights. These laws are popular because they have a lot of support.

Dr Levy tells BBC, “It might be that the more physical consequences of your speech, the dimmer we’re going the protect it.”

Ms McNeill argues that the issue isn’t that lawbreakers shouldn’t be punished. It’s about how disproportional the punishments are.

“People charged with drunk driving, assault and drug offences… do not get any custodial sentences — fines or only suspended sentences – but then we see Violet Coco given fifteen months as a peaceful climate activist,” she said.

Ms McNeill believes that the laws are “politically motivated” to intimidate climate activists.

No matter what their goal, there’s general agreement that they could chill protests more generally.

Dr Levy suggests that courts might intervene in order to overturn legislation. Two women from NSW have already filed a petition to the High Court of Australia asking for that.

It has happened before. Australia’s top court annulled a previous version of Tasmanian’s rules in 2017 and declared them unconstitutional.

Higher courts have upheld similar laws, experts claim. Two pro-abortion activists won a legal challenge to the ban on them protesting within 150m from abortion clinics in 2019.

“The main factor in deciding whether to apply the law is how specific it is. Is it too vague or too detailed? Dr. Levy.

He states that the issue of large jail terms will be crucial.

“As an ex-criminal prosecutor, I can assure you that imprisonment time is rare and should only be used when absolutely necessary. This seems quite extreme.

Davis claimed that the “real slap” was that Davis denied bail to his client before she appealed – which is quite unusual for a nonviolent offenders.

“You must be a really monstrous person in order to deny your existence.”

He plans to challenge the bail decision next Wednesday, but for now, he said Coco is “stuck into a cell”.

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