Aboriginal man jailed for stealing biscuits

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The Independent Online

Jamie Wurramara looked bewildered as he was led down the steps of a Northern Territory courthouse earlier this week, and well he might. The 21-year-old Aboriginal man had just been jailed for a year for stealing £9 worth of biscuits.

Jamie Wurramara looked bewildered as he was led down the steps of a Northern Territory courthouse earlier this week, and well he might. The 21-year-old Aboriginal man had just been jailed for a year for stealing £9 worth of biscuits.

The penalty was the result of harsh mandatory sentencing laws which were also blamed for the death last week of a 15-year-old Aboriginal boy. The boy hanged himself after he was imprisoned for stealing pencils and paint.

The two cases have put unprecedented pressure on the federal government to overrule the legislation, which is also in force in Western Australia. As public protests took place around the country yesterday, Australia's Human Rights Commission added its voice to a chorus of criticism, calling the sentencing regulations offensive and racist.

The United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, is expected to raise the matter with the Northern Territory's Chief Minister, Denis Burke, during a visit to Darwin today.

The laws require that custodial sentences be imposed for specific crimes, including burglary and theft, on first-time offenders aged over 17 and repeat juvenile offenders. Last week they were condemned by Unicef, which said they broke international conventions protecting children's rights.

Two other men have been jailed for the theft of the biscuits, and a bottle of orangecordial, which were taken from a workers' mess at a manganese mine in Groote Eylandt, a settlement 400 miles east of Darwin. Wurramara told the court that he and his companions were hungry when they broke in on Christmas Day 1998.

The magistrate, Greg Cavanagh, told Wurramara that he had no alternative but to jail him, "no matter how offensive the possible penalties are to yourself and others".

The suicide of the 15-year-old boy, an orphan known only as Johnno, caused nationwide outrage last week. He had been sentenced to 28 days in custody at a juvenile detention centre near Darwin, and hanged himself with a sheet two days before he was due to be released.

Professor Alice Tay, president of the Human Rights Commission, yesterday urged the Prime Minister, John Howard, to introduce legislation overruling the mandatory sentencing laws. Mr Howard said he would await the report of a federal parliamentary committee, due early next month.

Australia has already been criticised by international human rights groups for incarcerating 18 times as many indigenous as non-indigenous children, despite the fact that the former make up just 2.6 per cent of the youth population.

Bill Jonas, Australia's social justice commissioner, said the sentencing laws were racist because they targeted poverty-stricken Aboriginals. "As longas this country continues to lock up Aboriginal children for trivial offences, Australia will have blood on its hands," he said. "I am angry and sad for this nation."

But the Northern Territory and Western Australian governments defended the laws yesterday, claiming that they had popular support. Mr Burke said: "The legislation is no more discriminatory than the criminals themselves."

Shane Stone, a former Northern Territory chief minister, now federal president of Mr Howard's Liberal Party, wrote in The Australian newspaper: "Territorians, like most Australians, are sick and tired of the grubs who break into their homes, steal their cars and anything else that is not nailed down. Yes, the legislation is harsh. It is designed to punish and deter."

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