City Hub: Police under fire after charging legal observers at climate change protest

The NSW Council for Civil Liberties (NSWCCL) has called on police to withdraw their charges against legal observers during a climate change protest in Newcastle over the weekend. 

Volunteers known as Legal Observers actively participate in protests to safeguard the rights of demonstrators and enhance police accountability. Although they can be invited to attend protests, Legal Observers operate independently and refrain from involvement in the protest itself or decisions related to its course.

Designated as Human Rights Defenders by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Legal Observers engage in tasks such as distributing information cards, educating individuals about their legal rights, and documenting interactions through note-taking, photography, or videography.

During the recent weekend climate protest, organised by climate change activist organization, Rising Tide, Legal Observers were easily identifiable in pink high-visibility vests bearing the words "Legal Observer" in prominent black letters and openly communicated their presence and role to the police. Despite this, they faced charges for doing nothing further than what was within their role as Legal Observers.

This incident is not the first instance of Legal Observers being arrested while fulfilling their duties during protests.

NSWCCL sent an open letter to the NSW Police Commissioner in August 2021 but has had to send an almost identical letter again for the same reason.

President of NSWCCL Lydia Shelly said, “New South Wales already has a reputation of being a State that restricts and curtails the right to protest unnecessarily. It is shameful that NSW Police have arrested and charged Legal Observers at the recent climate change protest.

“It risks the State of NSW, which is already home to some of the most draconian 2 anti-protest laws in the country, becoming further tarnished in the eyes of those who value transparency, accountability and civil liberties", she continued. 

“The charges against the Legal Observers should be immediately withdrawn. It is not in the public interest for these charges to proceed.”

Ms Shelly has since published an open letter to NSW Police, saying “It is imperative that NSW Police are informed of the role of independent Legal Observers and that this is the last time that NSW Police arrest Legal Observers during the course of their observing at a protest.” 

On the arrest of Legal Observers, Ms Shelly spreads a message of concern, saying “If the charges are not withdrawn, it risks sending a dangerous message to the public that NSW police do not want their interactions or conduct with peaceful protestors monitored by independent organisations. It also further strains the already deteriorating relationship between NSW police and segments of our communities.”

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