October 28, 2008 / 5:17 AM / 11 years ago

Aborigines say Australia police bravery awards "brutal"

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australian Aborigines on Tuesday said a police decision to award bravery medals to 22 officers involved in riots sparked by the death of an indigenous man in police custody was “cheap, brutal and thuggish.”

A woman holds an Aboriginal flag in the central Sydney suburb of Redfern, the heart of the nation's aboriginal rights movement, while watching an outdoor broadcast of the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's apology February 13, 2008. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

Queensland state Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson this week said the officers, sent to subdue 2004 riots on remote Palm Island after local man Mulrunji Doomadgee died in police custody, would all get bravery commendations.

“This is just not acceptable,” Aboriginal community worker Sam Watson told state radio, accusing Atkinson of timing the announcement to coincide with the sentencing last week of an Aboriginal man found guilty of involvement in the riots.

“What the police are attempting to do is present themselves as victims and place pressure on the trial judge to hand down a very severe penalty,” Watson said.

Doomadgee’s death sparked unrest that led to the destruction of the police station and a barracks on Palm Island. It also raised questions about Australia’s commitment to an independent judicial inquiry into how to prevent aboriginal deaths in jail.

Senior police sergeant Chris Hurley was cleared in 2007 of killing Doomadgee, whose liver was “virtually cleaved in two” after a jailhouse struggle between the pair.

Rights groups said afterwards that the trial raised serious questions about justice for Aborigines.

But Atkinson said the 22 officers were not involved in what had been a “tragic” death in custody after arriving on Palm Island to maintain security.

“The fact that no one was seriously injured was testament to the courage, professionalism and restraint shown by them,” he said after announcing the awards.

Australia’s 460,000 Aborigines make up about 2 percent of the population. They suffer higher rates of unemployment, substance abuse and domestic violence, and have a life expectancy 17 years less than other Australians.

Indigenous rights activist Gracelyn Smallwood said tensions were still high on Palm Island and indigenous people were still 13 times more likely than other Australians to go to jail, even after a decade-long effort to improve the court system.

“The whole of Australia that’s not speaking out should be ashamed of themselves because it’s a travesty of justice,” she said.

Reporting by Rob Taylor; Editing by Valerie Lee

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