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Victory for Drop the Charges campaign
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Following a coordinated series of raids by Australian Federal Police and immigration department (DIMIA) officers on houses in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane last December 1, four refugee supporters in Sydney were charged with helping asylum seekers who escaped from detention obtain false passports so they could leave Australia.

They were Sydney University student Sunil Menon, high-school teacher John Morris, ESL teacher Mark Goudkamp and Search Foundation secretary Peter Murphy. The charges carried a maximum penalty of two years' jail or a $5000 fine.

On October 28, lawyers for the Department of Public Prosecutions appeared before Justice Reg Blanch, chief judge of the NSW District Court, to formally announce that the DPP was not proceeding with charges against Morris.

The charges against Goudkamp had been dropped on January 11 for lack of evidence, and on January 25 the charges against Murphy were also dropped.

Then on August 16, after the appearance of only two prosecution witnesses, the presiding judge in the trial of Menon determined that there was insufficient evidence to support the charge and directed the jury to acquit him.

Commenting on the October 28 decision to drop the charges against Morris, Refugee Action Coalition (RAC) activist Ian Rintoul said: "This vindicates the stand we took to demand that the charges be dropped. And it is a warning about the 'anti-terror' laws that the government is now considering. Who knows what might have happened if the police had the kind of powers they will get under Howard's new laws.

Morris thinks there were two reasons that the charges were dropped. The first was lack of physical evidence. The second was the public Drop the Charges campaign led by RAC.

Referring to the political motivations for the initial charges, Morris told Green Left Weekly: "DIMIA has been continually embarrassed by the thousands of Australians who have actively made an effort to aid refugees, from temporary visa-holders to Woomera escapees. In response, DIMIA tried to portray four ordinary people as racketeers and fraudsters."

From the date of the first court appearance on January 11, RAC organised protests of between 20 and 100 supporters outside the court, drawing significant media interest and wide support from a variety of public figures, including journalist John Pilger, authors Tom Keneally and Rosie Scott, broadcaster John Highfield, Sydney University academic and prisoners' rights activist Tim Anderson, East Timor solidarity campaigner Sister Susan Connelly, as well as strong support from the NSW Teachers Federation, the union that two of those charged are active members in. An online statement attracted hundreds of endorsements.

"Most importantly", Morris added, the campaign "kept Sunil and myself positive and bolstered to maintain a belligerent 'not guilty' plea".

According to Morris, the public campaign also "aided the direction of the civil liberties lawyers [Shane Prince, Stephen Blanks and David Leong], who deserve enormous credit, especially given their important role now to combat the draconian excesses of the proposed terror laws.

"Finally, with four out of four charges dropped, it has been tremendously inspiring and educational for all activists involved in the campaign. It should be a good springboard to oppose further breaches of civil liberties."

Commenting on the lessons the Drop the Charges campaign holds for activists facing politically motivated charges in future, Morris said that former diplomat and critic of the government's refugee policy Tony Kevin "is exactly right that activists must state now that they will divulge details of future charges laid against them under the proposed new laws. The censorship component of the laws is probably anti-constitutional and certainly undemocratic.

"Solidarity is the key to beat organised state repression. They know that and want to single people out, just as for AWAs [individual contracts]. Their formula is AWAs to keep you bound at work and the terror laws to keep you gagged at home. Solidarity can beat both."

From an article by Sarah Stephen in Green Left Weekly, November 2, 2005.

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