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Guns were pointed at children during early morning raids which were a “complete overreaction” to rioting sparked by a high-profile death in custody on Queensland’s Palm Island, a court has heard on its first day of trial.

A class action, launched by community leader Lex Wotton on behalf of the islanders, claims policing in the community after Cameron (known in death as Mulrunji) Doomadgee’s 2004 death was of a lesser standard than would be expected in areas that weren’t mostly Aboriginal.

The death of Mulrunji sparked a riot that made headlines around the nation – with residents burning down the police station and the home of Mulrunji’s arresting officer, Chris Hurley.

The declaration of an emergency, the subsequent raids and arrests without warrants was excessive, barrister for the community Chris Ronalds SC said.

Police could have arrested suspects without raids involving heavily armed police wearing balaclavas, she said.

Children witnessed the arrests of family members and were not given counselling after having guns pointed at them, she said.

Head applicant Lex Wotton, who was jailed for inciting the riots, was tasered without warning in front of his young children, she said.

“Conduct of the police during the state of emergency is not something that is … conceivable anywhere else in Queensland other than a remote aboriginal community,” she said.

Among the other complaints were that the death was not referred to the state homicide squad, that Mulrunji’s arresting officer, Chris Hurley, was not immediately stood down and that evidence from Aboriginal witnesses was unfairly discredited.

Whilst charges of manslaughter and assault of Mulrinji were laid against Christopher Hurley in 2007 he was found not guilty at trial.

However In 2010 Queensland’s corruption watchdog found that the original investigation into the death was ‘seriously flawed’ and the investigating officers had ‘failed the people of Palm island, the broader Indigenous community and the public generally.’

It recommended disciplinary action against the investigating officers, but no action has been taken by the Queensland Police Service to this day.

Ms Ronalds said Islanders had been victims of systemic racism that was “so entrenched that it is apparently invisible to those who did it and those who manage and supervise it”.

Judge Debbie Mortimer will consider whether Queensland should compensate the community, which has also asked for a formal apology.

The four-week trial is being heard at the island’s Bwgcolman Community School hall before moving to Townsville on September 28 and Brisbane later in the year.


Ref: Laura Murphy-Oates, SBS News, with AAP