A High Court case will challenge parole conditions for Australian prisoners, arguing that certain strict conditions place an unreasonable limit on human rights and contravene the constitution.
The claim has been brought by Lex Wotton, who was charged with leading the riots on Palm Island after the death in police custody of local Mulrunji Doomadgee in 2004.
Wotton was released on parole last July, but conditions of his parole by Queensland Corrective Services include a complete ban on talking to the media, a ban on attending public meetings or functions without prior approval, a ban on speaking in public, no gambling and a ban on visiting venues that have gambling on premises.
Ben Schokman, director of international human rights advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre — who are assisting in the High Court case — told Crikey the parole conditions were “draconian”.
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“The worry is that in going too far in imposing those conditions, there are concerns that they breach fundamental rights which are contained in the Australian constitution,” explained Schokman.
Wotton’s case could have ramifications for other criminals on parole in Australia. “If the purpose of the parole was to promote rehabilitation and integration into society, it’s difficult to do so under these conditions,” said Schokman.
The Australian constitution gives an implied right of political discourse and free speech which this case says is violated by the parole conditions. In the context of Wotton, the main concerns are the impingement of his rights of freedom of political communication and political association, an issue that raises concerns for prisoner and indigenous rights, says Schokman. Wotton is a former councillor on Palm Island and is well-known in the largely indigenous community
Queensland is the only state that imposes a ban on all parolees having zero contact with the media. In 2005 Australian journalist Anne Delaney was charged and fined for interviewing a prisoner without permission in Queensland.
Schokman also argues that the media ban is confusing for media and prisoners alike. “Taken to the nth degree, technically he [Wotton] can’t even read a newspaper.”
It’s not just its attitudes to media contact that sets Queensland’s treatment of prisoners apart. “What we’re told constantly is that the parole board in Queensland is very reluctant to release people on parole,” Brett Collins, organiser at criminal justice advocacy group Justice Action, told Crikey. “Unlikely other states, the parolee board views parolee not as opportunity to put the person back in the community and serve their sentence in the community, but almost like a gift. Which it’s not.”
Each state parole board determines their own parolee conditions and limitations depending on the criminal. However, warns Collins, often a criminal’s parole conditions are based on their parole officers’ whims and preferences and the media ban limits understand of this.
“We as a public have a very large interest in knowing what’s happening in the system,” said Collins.
It’s common for parole conditions to place a certain limitations on human rights, which can often be justified — think of a criminal convicted of assault being banned from contact his victim. But in Wotton’s case, his legal team will put forward the case that his “conditions are said to be so limiting as to be unreasonable.”
In light of the immense public interest in Palm Island after the death of Doomadgee — which saw Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley charged with manslaughter and then later acquitted — this case is expected to gain high public interest, even more so if Wotton wins and is allowed to speak publicly again.
“Lex needs to have his voice heard,” said Gracelyn Smallwood, associate professor at James Cook University and chair of the Townsville Indigenous Human Rights. Smallwood spent time with Wotton this week and said he is working back at the local council in Palm Island, “beating all the young fellas with fitness” and looking forward to the upcoming trial.
The High Court will hear the case in early August. Wotton is being represented by Ron Merkel QC, assisted by Kristen Walker and Alistair Pound. The case is also receiving pro bono support from Levitt Robinson Solicitors, Allens Arthur Robinson and the Human Rights Law Centre.