Aborigines sue over stolen childhood

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The Independent Online
MEMORIES OF a shameful period in Australian history were revived yesterday when two Aborigines began a legal battle for compensation for the trauma of being separated from their parents and brought up as "white" children.

Lorna Cubillo, 60, and Peter Gunner, 51, are among 30,000 Aborigines known as the "stolen generation" - children forcibly assimilated into white culture by the enactment of a government policy that was abandoned only in 1970.

Ms Cubillo and Mr Gunner, who launched a test case against the Australian government in the Darwin federal court, were both removed from their families at the age of eight. Mr Gunner did not see his mother again for 30 years.

The case is expected to uncover harrowing testimony about the abuse and privations endured by Aborigines under the policy, which has been described by the Australian Human Rights Commission as a form of genocide.

Many of the surviving victims say they were beaten and sexually abused, or treated as slaves in the church missions and state institutions where they were brought up.

In a statement submitted to a preliminary hearing earlier this year, Ms Cubillo described how she was separated from her parents and transported hundreds of miles in a truck lined with barbed wire. Alongside her were babies of just a few months old. She said she was locked up at night and regularly flogged with a leather strap for speaking her traditional language. Her face still bears the scars of a beating administered to her for going swimming on a Sunday.

When Mr Gunner was removed from his home near Alice Springs in 1956, he thought that he was being taken away to be killed. At the time, he did not speak English.

The pair are claiming compensation and punitive damages for psychological trauma and mental distress. Their lawyer, Michael Schaefer, said the legal challenge was a test case for 700 other Aborigines who want to sue the federal government.

The government of the right-wing Prime Minister, John Howard, which has repeatedly denied responsibility for the wrongs suffered by the "stolen generation", is expected to mount a tough defence.

Mr Howard believes contemporary Australians should not have to make amends for past misdeeds. He expressed personal regret about the white assimilation policy earlier this year, but refrained from making an official apology to victims in case it provoked more lawsuits.

The policy has been denounced by its critics as an attempt to "breed out" the blackness of indigenous Australians. In 1997 a report by the Human Rights Commission concluded that surviving victims should be compensated.

After the preliminary hearing in May, Judge Maurice O'Loughlin ruled that Ms Cubillo and Mr Gunner had a case that should be heard.

Last year there was a failed attempt to persuade a court that a law allowing mixed-descent children to be removed from their mothers in the Northern Territory was unconstitutional.

Mr Schaefer has said that if his two clients are successful, the government should set up a tribunal to deal with future cases.

A report published yesterday found that Aborigines are more than twice as likely to die at birth as white Australians, and that many of those who do survive are destined for a life characterised by poverty, unemployment, violence, prison and disease. The Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that the life expectancy of the country's 386,000 Aborigines is nearly 20 years less than that of their white compatriots.