Trial Day Six (and counting) – the jury is out

Day six in the Alice Springs supreme court for the Pine Gap peace pilgrims. With all the evidence done and the verdict set to be given, you would be forgiven for thinking we would be getting more nervous. But in fact we were the most rested and relaxed of any morning we’ve had yet – done with the legal arguments and testimonies, we could hand the whole thing over to the jury and whatever other forces are at work.
The first couple of hours in court was Justice Reeves giving directions to the jury and summarising the evidence. Mostly the prosecution’s evidence of course – he told them to ignore all of ours except the bits where we admit to walking on the base. He accepted the jury may feel we are of good character, that we were sincerely acting on our conscience, or that our concerns about Pine Gap are justified. They might even believe the law is unjust or too harsh. But all that counts is whether the prosecution has proved the elements of the law in question. The insinuation was pretty clear.
So the jury went out to deliberate. We had some lunch and waited for the call. It didn’t come straight away, so rather than sitting around in the heat we headed to the local library. It was an unusual, almost surreal feeling flicking through books and CDs there. We’ve been so immersed in the court process for two weeks now, it felt weird sitting there reading a book of gonzo music criticism. After a week of talking about drone warfare, and a morning following the unfolding disaster at Manus Island; I had this uneasy, kinda guilty feeling chilling out in the library.
After four hours, we got a call summoning us to the court. Not for a verdict, the judge’s associate reassured us, they just want to ask the judge a question. We walked in to hear the jury foreperson saying they didn’t think they’d reach a unanimous verdict this afternoon, and one of them had an appointment they had to go to. Justice Reeves said they could go home and come back in the morning. When they turned up for jury duty a week ago I’m not sure they knew what they were up for.
Having left in the morning not knowing if we would come back, it was a strange anti-climax to return to the retreat centre that has been our temporary home. The whole time we’ve been here we’ve been saying once court’s over we’re going to climb that beautiful, ever-present range that is such an iconic part of the landscape here (and also hangs on our dining room wall at home thanks to an Albert Namatjira print I found in an op shop). It might not be over yet, but it seemed the perfect time.
So we set off in the direction of the hill. There was a storm out on the distant horizon, and the afternoon light gave those red desert colours an extra luminescence. I know it’s a cliché to say Alice Springs has some kind of mystical beauty, but when you’re here the words just fall out of your mouth and there’s nothing you can do about it. Of course, it’s also a place of much sadness and struggle, and from the top of the range you can see in the distance the distinctive domes of Pine Gap that have brought us out here.
But as we walked back down the hill and home, the storm came upon us. Usually that might put a dampener on an afternoon bushwalk; but when you’re in causes and circumstances that seem impossible, the symbolism of rain in the desert is just too potent.
Peace, Andy.

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Trial Day Five – Will our defences stand?

Day five in court for the Pine Gap peace pilgrims. It was a tired morning after a big night of preparing legal arguments and joining a local bible study at the gates of Pine Gap itself; but once again we put on our assortment of anti-war t-shirts (except for Franz, who donned a fancy paisley number for the occasion) and headed back to the court.
Yesterday we had said goodbye to a few of the friends and supporters who had come from across the country to Alice Springs for the trial. Unfortunately the trial seems to have outlasted people’s schedules! Today we said goodbye to a few more. But we got a boost of solidarity from Brisbane, where birdwatchers reported sightings of a flock of black cockatoos roaming the city handing out flyers about Pine Gap!
Having completed our evidence yesterday afternoon, this morning opened with the court voir dire (that means without the jury – you learn all kinds of legal jargon doing this stuff) while we debated whether our defences would be allowed for consideration by the jury. Basically, the way it works is this: pleading not guilty in court, you can either claim you didn’t break the law; or that you did but had a legal reason to do so – eg in response to a sudden extraordinary emergency or in defence of others. This is what we were going for.
The morning started slowly as the prosecution argued why our defences should not be allowed using lots of case law precedents from Australia and the UK. My personal highlight of this less than thrilling episode was when the precedent was raised of Dave Burgess and Will Saunders painting “NO WAR” on the Opera House in the first week of the Iraq war in 2003. The judge back then ruled against them and actually gave a prison sentence; which is why they were mentioned today by the prosecution. But in any circumstances, it is an honour to be compared to such an iconic action.
With two barristers, three solicitors and the commonwealth public interest specialist up against five anarchist peace activists; the odds were stacked against us when it came time for the legal stoush. But the ability of a small but determined group of people should never be underestimated, and so it was that Margaret presented everyone with a masterpiece in the art of lay law. Margaret has grown more exhausted, stressed and sick as the trial has progressed, and at this point can hardly speak due to a sore throat. Yet this morning she stood up and with supernatural power was arguing case law examples, legal elements and subsections, taking on each point of the prosecution argument. It was magnificent, a kind of performance that rarely is summoned in the day-to-day life of a mum, social worker and activist. As a final dramatic flourish, she emphatically folded her notes and sliced open her thumb with a papercut. But seriously, she was amazing.
Justice Reeves retired to consider his decision while we retired to the park for lunch. When he returned, it was to announce the disappointing but not entirely unexpected news that he would not allow our defence.
And so the jury was led back in for the closing addresses. The prosecution’s was a plain restating of the facts in Mr McHugh’s very dry, one-hand-in-the-pocket, gesticulate-with-glasses manner we are by now so familiar with.
Ours’ were much shorter, as you would expect given we had just been told all our evidence was effectively invalid. In our own way we each appealed to the consciences of the jury; telling them to evaluate the facts and take the action they felt necessary, the same as we had. Margaret finished with a quote from the closing statement her late husband Bryan Law had given in court a decade ago after similarly trespassing on Pine Gap.
Tomorrow the jury will receive their final instructions then make their decision. If it is guilty, we could face sentencing in the afternoon. So if there’s no court blog tomorrow, you can probably hazard a guess as to why. But you can be sure that none of us regret taking the action that we did for peace, or regret representing ourselves in court. It has enabled us to present ourselves to the court, the Pine Gap staff, the jury and the world as we are – a group of five friends with nothing to hide, who in our words and deeds hope to point the way to a world of new possibilities.
Whether we wind up in the clink or not, that struggle for a better world will go on in our hearts, our relationships, and how we respond to injustices on a systemic scale. Sometimes the struggle involves lament, sometimes celebration. Sometimes it is mundane, sometimes dramatic.
That last sentence is also a good description of court; but the jury, after five days of experiencing both those extremes and plenty in between, tomorrow will have to work out between them whether we are guilty or not.
Peace, Andy.

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Trial day four – the Peace Pilgrims take the stand

Day four in the Alice Springs supreme court for the five peace pilgrims charged with trespassing on Pine Gap. And this one was really our most important day so far as we finally got to give our testimony. Again we stopped for prayers outside the court. The bible passage I was reminded of was Matthew 10 as Jesus sends out the disciples. He tells them “when they arrest you and put you before the courts, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for the Holy Spirit will speak through you.” Not to say we hadn’t put in preparatory work, but we were definitely counting on some spiritual help!
First Margaret continued her statement, and then she faced down cross-examination from the prosecutor Mr McHugh. We got a sample of what the questioning would be like – trying to beat our defence by saying we had no ability to actually disrupt operations at Pine Gap. Margaret refused to be pinned down though and stuck stoically to the point that non-violent direct action always means resistance by the mere fact of your presence. Eventually Mr McHugh was forced to admit defeat and give up.
Which meant it was time for the next witness – that was me. I gave a detailed account of the US drone program and the reasons I believed it needed to be disrupted; from learning about the role of Pine Gap and signals intelligence in identifying targets, to the legal questions about extra-judicial assassinations, the dehumanization of enemies that drone warfare facilitates, and hearing the voices of drone whistleblowers victims. I also spoke about my sincere belief that social movements can bring about great social change, and the power of a small group of ordinary people taking a public stand against violence. I was grateful that Mr McHugh’s cross-examination questions gave me a chance to further elaborate on this last point.
That brought Franz up to the stand. He spoke about the importance of music in his life and in creating change; and recounted the story of our incursion into Pine Gap. Just as he got to the climactic point it all got too much and he broke down in tears. Take that, prosecution who keep objecting to evidence on the grounds it’s emotive! Franz blamed tiredness after a very busy and nerve-wracking week, but he was rescued in any event by the lunch break which gave him time to recompose himself. When we got back, Franz showed the court a clip from the Tonje Hessen Schei documentary Drone; a powerful film which had been shown in Alice a few days before our lament last year.
Tim got up next. He is a man of many talents, but I don’t think it’s unfair to say he is not the most confident public speaker. Still, he gave a good account of his lifestyle and reasons for resistance; as well as relating the story of how his cousin Sam along with two friends walked onto a spy base similar to Pine Gap at Waihopai, New Zealand. They sliced with a sickle the weather dome that covered one of the satellite dishes, and were subsequently found not guilty by a jury who ruled they were acting legally to defend others. Hint hint 😉
With the afternoon creeping by, we called our second witness Richard Tanter. Richard is the foremost scholarly expert on Pine Gap, and he gave a characteristically detailed account of what the base does and its role in the US drone program. Mr McHugh had objected to Professor Tanter’s appearance on the grounds that the evidence could be emotive – he’s obviously never read those Nautilus Institute papers! It was great having Richard there talking about this subject he has done so much to shed light on over the years. Even beyond his evidence, so much of what we were able to say in court was indebted to the tireless and invaluable work of Richard and the late Des Ball.
There was still time for our final testimony from Jim. He had a bit of a struggle getting some of the evidence he tendered accepted; but like a lot of us who are more comfortable in conversation than as orators, he really came to life when being cross-examined. Highlights included when he was asked whether he had considered other options like taking legal action against the government. Jim answered “I once did a citizen’s arrest of Peter Dutton for his war crimes”.
“How did that go?”
“I think he was embarrassed, but mostly he went unpunished”.
Perhaps unwisely, Mr McHugh pressed on. At one point the questions turned to the constitutionally enshrined separation of powers. Jim replied he felt the concept was a bit of a myth, and gave as an example the fact that the last time he was charged under the act that presently finds us in court, he had his conviction overturned then watched the government change the law to stop the court from doing that again.
Before the close of the day, the jury was sent out for the beginnings of the discussion of whether our defence will be accepted as valid. That conversation will continue tomorrow, but as for today I was so proud of all my co-accused and how they spoke in the court.
Last week we gathered with some Alice Springs locals to discuss the transformative power of lament. The conversation was heavily influenced by theologian Walter Brueggemann. A quote from him was used then, and I thought of it again today. Walter says the task of the prophetic voice is to “unveil truth in the face of ideology; to voice grief in the face of denial; and to proclaim hope as a counter to despair.”
Peace, Andy.

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Trial Day Three – defence opens

The five Pine Gap peace pilgrims were back in court today after a couple of days off. The weekend was not spent idly mind you – besides lots of case planning, we did a lament service on Saturday night at ANZAC Hill, and a public meeting at the town council building where we heard perspectives on Pine Gap from a couple of the peace pilgrims, Nautilus Institute’s Richard Tanter, former senator Scott Ludlam and US drone whistleblower Lisa Ling.
So with our spirits (if not our bodies) re-energised, we headed to court again this morning. Outside the court we stopped together for a few prayers and words of support, then entered for what would be quite a dramatic day.
The prosecution still had to finish giving their evidence, which began with the last couple of police officers. Through them came the photos and video of our lament we had taken on the morning in question. It was nice for the videos to get another screening, as at 4am when they were originally live-streamed (with no forewarning for obvious reasons) there was a limited audience.
Unfortunately the re-screening didn’t change the fact that it is extremely difficult to make anything out in either the photos or videos. The viola playing is hindered by being done on the move up a steep and rocky hill, while the cinematography struggles with the fact it was filmed in pitch darkness with only the flimsy light of a head-torch, plus it was done while moving away from the hastily pursuing police. Fortunately the jury is by now well-acquainted enough with the story to make out what was on their screen.
A few cross-examination questions about police experiences at the anti-war IPAN conference completed the prosecution evidence just before lunch. Which meant it was time for the first big question of our defence – would we be able to present it?
Since the first day of the trial you see, the prosecution had been indicating to the judge that they were opposed to us giving our legal defence (of defending others in an extraordinary emergency – section 10.4 of the criminal code) in front of the jury. The Crown believes our defence is invalid, and thinks the judge will agree with them and therefore it would confuse the jury to see what would later be disregarded. Our team of hotshot lawyers had compiled a submission to argue why we should at least be able to present the evidence in front of the jury. And whether it was due to our legal expertise or not, Justice Reeves ruled in our favour in that respect.
And so we began with a powerful opening statement delivered by Margaret. “At Pine Gap,” she said, “data is collected and processed from satellites orbiting high above and relayed to the US military to provide real time targeting information for bombing runs and targeted drone assassination program; resulting in death, suffering and property destruction on a vast scale.”
It was amazing to cut through the formalities of the courtroom with such powerful words – in a way it felt like we were getting away with something naughty. And yet what else were we going to say? Of course our belief is that is the function of Pine Gap and we needed to act to put a stop to it. Why else would someone risk the penalty that we have?
With that done, we called our first witness. Well, we had another argument with the prosecution first. They opposed our witness Scott Ludlam because he wasn’t allowed to speak on anything that happened in his work as a senator (parliamentary privilege laws, you see). We responded that Scott had done things related to Pine Gap outside of parliament and therefore should be able to speak about that. Happily, the judge agreed again. The prosecutor Mr McHugh proceeded to object to nearly every question, which was a test of our amateur lawyer abilities, but somewhere between the objections we got some good information out of Scott on Pine Gap.
Next Margaret gave her testimony. It was a good talk about a life spent pursuing peace, about her late husband Bryan Law (who was one of the four Pine Gap citizen’s inspectors in 2005 and a key part of the last court case) and their combined activist efforts within the Cairns community. She talked about hearing former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser on the need to end Australia’s military alliance with the US (including Pine Gap), and in fact was able to play an interview Malcolm had done with ABC radio.
Two former politicians in the court in one afternoon! There’s a few more I wouldn’t mind putting on the stand to ask about Pine Gap’s activities, but I guess that will have to do for now.
That ended another day in court, one where we got to celebrate a couple of small victories. Who knows? They might have even inched us a tiny bit closer to the ultimate goal of a world based on principles of justice and peace rather than violence and the rule of the strongest.
The nature of non-violence is that it can bring great changes, but mostly in small increments – transformation that happens first in our own hearts and minds, then usually in the people we come into contact with, or maybe through the media if you do something crazy like walk on to a top-secret spy base. It says that changes won by force are pyrrhic victories – real peace is never won by the barrel of a gun. This is why for us, the way we relate to each other and to others in the court (including the prosecution who in a couple of days are literally going to demand we be sent to prison) is as important as presenting the facts about Pine Gap and the mass destruction it causes. Tomorrow we’ll be back again to do all of those things.
Peace, Andy.

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Support the #PineGapPilgrims

We were lamenting war and praying for peace at Pine Gap and now we need your help and support:
  1. To get involved sign up for Wage Peace Newsletter for updates, invitation to actions, call outs and court dates. Also for other anti-military updates. Share this information with your friends and networks.
  2. Donate to help us travel back and forth to Alice Springs as well as general costs in fighting this case. We would like to see people join us.
  3. Join us in Alice for the major case later in the year.
  4. If you are in Alice Springs – support us by encouraging local involvement and making links. Contact Margaret[email protected]