Australia: Harsh Police Response During COVID-19


Victoria’s police have used harsh measures during the Australian state’s Covid-19 lockdown that threaten basic rights, Human Rights Watch said. Victoria’s parliament should reject a new attempt to broaden police powers.

Victorian police have engaged in abusive practices during the pandemic that raise concerns about their commitment to upholding human rights. Premier Daniel Andrews said on September 12, 2020, that imposing curfews was about giving law enforcement “the easiest set of rules to enforce.” He asserted that the curfew would remain in place “because it was not about human rights, but rather a matter of human life.” A bill passed by Victoria’s lower house would expand the authority to detain people during the pandemic crisis.

“Rights should be upheld and reinforced during a pandemic, not abandoned,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director. “Several recent incidents raise serious concerns that Victoria’s police are taking excessive or disproportionate action against suspected lockdown violators.”

Metropolitan Melbourne has been living under a strict second lockdown since the first week of August, with a daily curfew, currently from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. and residents only allowed to leave their homes within a five kilometer radius for a limited time to buy food, provide care, exercise, or attend approved work that requires permits. Victoria faced a severe Covid-19 outbreak after a mismanaged hotel quarantine effort in May. The total number of Covid-19 cases in Victoria as of September 22 was 20,076, with 766 deaths. The majority of these cases resulted from the second outbreak, most of them residents of aged care homes, which led to the second lockdown.

On September 2, in Ballarat, police were recorded on video as they arrested a pregnant woman on incitement charges for organizing an anti-lockdown protest on Facebook. Gatherings have been banned under regional Victoria’s Stage 3 stay-at-home orders, yet arresting, handcuffing, and taking someone to the police station solely for planning a protest is a seemingly disproportionate response. Police handcuffed the woman in front of her children and ignored her offer to delete the post. They have since asserted that their actions were proportionate. The case will return to the courts in January 2021.

An Indigenous man riding his bike to work at about 5:30 a.m. on September 3 alleged that Victoria police tackled, assaulted, and racially abused him. Police say the man failed to stop when asked for a permit check. The police did not have their required body cameras turned on so there is no independent record. The man’s workplace union plans to lodge a complaint with Victoria’s Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) for an independent review. The police said that after an internal debrief they were satisfied with the level of force used.

The media have also reported incidents in which the police allegedly used harassing tactics. These include a law professor with cerebral palsy who alleges that the police told her to “move on,” preventing her from sitting down and resting while out with her 70-year-old mother; a heavily pregnant woman whom police reportedlyordered not to sit down at a park bench for a break; and a young tradesman whom the police fined for allegedly having the wrong column mistakenly filled out on his work permit. 

Data reported by the ABC as of September 3, showed the Victorian police had issued 1,762 fines for breaking curfew, totaling A$2.9 million (US$2 million). The Age newspaper reported that over 10 percent of fines have reportedly been imposed in three of Victoria’s most disadvantaged communities, while Victoria’s three most affluent communities have incurred only 2 percent of the fines. In July, after a rise in coronavirus cases among residents, Victorian authorities suddenly locked down several public housing complexes completely for 14 days, enforced by police, resulting in severe restrictions not imposed elsewhere in the state.

International human rights law, such as found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), recognizes that in the context of a serious public health threat, restrictions on some rights can be justified. But such restrictions must have a legal basis, be strictly necessary, neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application, of limited duration, respectful of human dignity, subject to review, and proportionate to achieve the objective.

On September 18, the Victorian government’s lower house passed the Covid-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2020. The bill, if passed by the upper house, would extend powers currently granted only to health officials, to any authorized officer to preemptively detain people who test positive for the virus that causes Covid-19 and who are “likely to refuse or fail to comply with the direction.” Police officers and Protective Services Officers could be among those granted these powers, but it is unclear who would be an “authorized” officer.

Preventive detention authority should only be used in the most serious circumstances, subject to strict limitations and independent review, Human Rights Watch said. If police receive expanded powers under this law, the limitations and rights of appeal would be unclear, as would be whether there is sufficient oversight to prevent misuse or the discriminatory application of the law. 

On September 22, a group of retired judges and leading lawyers wrote a letter to the Victorian premier expressing their alarm over the proposed laws, calling it “unprecedented, excessive and open to abuse.”

“Giving ‘authorized officers’ in Victoria the power to preemptively detain people amid repeated complaints of heavy-handed policing could do more harm than good,” Pearson said. “With Covid-19 numbers in the state falling, now is not the time for new emergency powers.”

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