Kathy Marks: Australia's persistent racism

One Aboriginal leader compares it to Biko's murder in South Africa

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Nearly four years ago, an Aboriginal man named Cameron Doomadgee was escorted into the police station on Palm Island, off the coast of North Queensland. A healthy 36-year-old, he had never been in trouble with the law. An hour later, he was dead.

Mr Doomadgee had been involved in a scuffle inside the police station with the arresting officer, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley. An autopsy found Mr Doomadgee had four broken ribs, a ruptured spleen and a liver "virtually cleaved in two". The injuries were described as similar to those of a car or plane crash victim.

There have many such deaths; a Royal Commission even investigated the phenomenon 20 years ago. Its recommendations have not prevented Aborigines from continuing to be arrested and imprisoned at a far higher rate than white Australians. Thanks largely to the efforts of certain journalists, Mr Doomadgee's death wasn't just another black death in custody, of which there have been many. There was public outrage. One Aboriginal leader likened it to the murder by South African police of Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid activist.

Queensland – governed for two decades by a despotic right-wing premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, with the assistance of an often brutal and corrupt police force – is still known as Australia's Deep North. And there are few spots worse than Palm Island, founded as an Aboriginal penal colony and nowadays a byword for dysfunction and despair.

Sgt Hurley's conduct was investigated by his friends; he even collected the detectives from the airport. He denied assaulting Mr Doomadgee, saying he must have fallen on him. The coroner decided Sgt Hurley caused the fatal inj-uries by punching him. However, no charges were laid.

Uproar ensued and the case was reviewed. In June last year, Sgt Hurley stood trial on the mainland, where an all-white jury acquitted him of manslaughter. The verdict was greeted with jubilation by police officers, who had staged rallies in support of Sgt Hurley, claiming he had been "hung out to dry".

Eight months later, prime minister Kevin Rudd apologised to indigenous Australians for their past treatment, vowing that "the injustices of the past must never, never happen again". On Palm Island, people were still grieving for Mr Doomadgee – and for his son, Eric, who hanged himself in 2006, and for Patrick Bramwell, another islander who comforted Mr Doomadgee as he lay dying in his cell. Mr Bramwell hanged himself last year.

In parliament, Mr Rudd spoke of "unfinished business". Over the past 12 days, the loose ends of the Palm Island saga have been tied up. A community leader, Lex Wotton, was convicted by an all-white jury of inciting the riot that erupted after Mr Doomadgee's post mortem. And 34 Queensland police officers – the largest single batch ever – were awarded for their bravery during that riot.

Mr Wotton could be jailed for life. Sgt Hurley, who was suspended on full pay for two years, has returned to the police service and been promoted. He received a £40,000 payout. An inquiry into allegations that he ran over an Aboriginal woman's foot and then drove off concluded that he should receive counselling. Sgt Hurley has yet to be counselled.

Those who believe that Australia has cast off its racist past, or that a black man's life counts for much here, or that Mr Rudd's apology in February has improved the lives of ordinary Aborigines, would do well to reflect on recent events on Palm Island.

k.marks@independent.co.uk

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