A climate protester who blocked a lane of traffic on Sydney Harbour Bridge has been sentenced to 15 months in prison with a non-parole period of eight months, with human rights advocates labelling the punishment “disproportionate”.
Magistrate Allison Hawkins in Sydney’s Downing Centre local court on Friday sentenced Deanna “Violet” Coco to prison for her role in the climate protest on 13 April this year, when the now 32-year-old parked a truck and stood holding a lit flare.
Coco had pleaded guilty to seven charges including using or modifying an authorised explosive not as prescribed and resisting a police offer during arrest. She was also fined $2,500.
Her protest blocked one of the bridge’s five city-bound lanes during the morning peak for about 25 minutes, before police removed her and others.
The activist will appeal against the sentence. She was refused bail on Friday and will remain in custody until her appeal hearing in March.
Coco was granted bail after her initial arrest and, according to her lawyer Mark Davis, she had complied with all bail requirements since.
Davis said it was “outrageous” his client had been refused bail before her appeal was heard.
“It is just extraordinary to me,” Davis said. “You always get appeals bail unless you’re a violent offender and you haven’t abided by the terms of your bail. In the months she had been on bail she had done everything – always attended court.”
Davis argued his client deliberately planned to not block all traffic and other lanes of traffic were able to move in the same direction. Police alleged the protest blocked an ambulance with its sirens on, however, Davis refuted this.
He said his client acted in part out of climate anxiety.
“This is totally disproportionate, it’s done to deter other protesters, in effect it’s sending a message,” Davis said on Friday.
Earlier this year, the New South Wales government introduced tough new laws increasing punishments for non-violent protesters with larger fines and up to two years in jail. The move followed a series of climate protests that disrupted activity at key resource export ports.
The Tasmanian and Victorian state governments have passed similar laws this year.
Human Rights Watch’s Australia researcher, Sophie McNeill, said Coco’s sentence was “incredibly alarming”.
“Today’s decision is further evidence that climate protesters are being subjected to vindictive legal action by Australian authorities that is restricting the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression,” she said.
The NSW Council for Civil Liberties president, Josh Pallas, said on Friday that “peaceful protest should never result in jail time”.
“It’s outrageous the state wastes its resources seeking jail time and housing peaceful protesters in custody at the expense of taxpayers,” he said.
Pallas called for the recent NSW “anti-protest” laws to be repealed. “Peaceful protest sometimes involves inconvenience to the public,” he said. “But inconvenience is not a sufficient reason to prohibit it – it’s immoral and unjust.”
The NSW attorney general, Mark Speakman, on Friday evening said “the government supports the right of all individuals to participate in lawful protest and dissent – not just in the media or in social media but in public places including street marches.”
“However, the right to protest must be weighed against the right of ordinary members of the public to move about safely and freely in their day-to-day lives,” he said in a statement.
Coco’s protest was under the banner of a recently formed climate activist group Fireproof Australia.
A former member of Extinction Rebellion, Coco spoke to the Guardian in April about the formation of the group, explaining: “Fireproof Australia is designed to be more disruptive” than Extinction Rebellion.
“We tried protesting to the politicians,” she said. “We’ve tried one-day marches. Nothing happened. And so now we need to escalate these disruptive tactics.”
Fireproof Australia in a statement said that Friday was “a sad day for democracy, the planet and humanity”.
Shannan Langford Salisbury, a friend of Coco’s, said: “Yes she blocked traffic, but she blocked one lane of five with a firefighter. It doesn’t matter if you disagree with the tactics. This young person was defending her future. Protest is a vital part of democratic society for everyday people to engage with their political system.”
Additional reporting by Adam Morton