Protesters who staged Department of Immigration sit-in escape conviction
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Protesters who staged Department of Immigration sit-in escape conviction

Seven protesters who staged a sit-in at the Lonsdale Street office of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection avoided a conviction on Tuesday for trespassing on Commonwealth property.

On November 3 last year, the seven protesters joined a larger group in a protest following the close of the Manus Island detention centre three days earlier.

The Manus Island detention centre.

The Manus Island detention centre.

Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

The office manager asked the group to leave, and while some did, the seven who were sentenced on Tuesday for the trespass offence stayed in the office lobby.

Police were called and they asked the protesters to leave. The seven, Larissa Barritt, Dylan Clements, Annastassia Dennis, Vanamali Hermans, Zoe Hinge, Judith Pabian and Lina Koleilat refused again, and were arrested.

They each spent between five and nine hours in custody while the charges against them were processed.

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In a group statement from all the protesters except Ms Koleilat and read out loud to the ACT Magistrates Court, they said they were "compelled by conscience" to act after the Manus detention centre was closed.

They said the refugees who were to be resettled in Papua New Guinea were terrified and lived in fear of an attack if they were to move into what the group said was an unfinished compound.

They said they had spoken to the refugees, who they called their friends, and who told them food, medical supplies, drinking water, and electricity had been cut off.

"We are not naive radicals - we are normal and peaceful members of the Australian public objecting in a dignified way to one of the most severe cases of mistreatment of people in Australia's care," they said.

Defence barrister Anthony Hopkins, who represented the seven, said they were all of exemplary character, bright students and dedicated to social justice.

Dr Hopkins asked the magistrate to consider a non-conviction order, noting too that a conviction would impact the group's ability to travel overseas.

Federal prosecutors opposed a non-conviction order and said any leniency to be afforded the group could be reflected in a fine.

The prosecutor said there was a need to balance the rights of protesters with the rights of a building's lawful occupier.

But she said, in arguing against a non-conviction order, that the group had deliberately broken the law and general deterrence was important.

She said punishment was necessary and that no matter how admirable a person's views, they should act in accordance with the law.

Special Magistrate Margaret Hunter accepted that the seven were of exemplary character, noting that each had a "real commitment to social justice". "I've never seen so many with such glowing references," she said.

She said they were high achievers, and noted their commitment to refugee advocacy and their roles as contributing members of the community.

"[Their] commitment to these people are commendable all but for one thing," she said, "what they did that day was unlawful."

She said there was a need for general deterrence, noting that "if the community decided generally to act in an unlawful manner there'd be chaos."

However, pointing in particular to the hours each spent in custody for an offence that only carried the penalty of a fine, Ms Hunter made a non-conviction order and dismissed the charges against the seven.

She said "nothing more than spending time in a prison cell will bring home ... that if you engage in this kind of unlawful behaviour you will spend time in custody."

Alexandra Back

Alexandra Back is a reporter with The Canberra Times

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