22-Year-Old Faces Two Years Jail After Halting Flight In Refugee Protest

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Two separate cases will go before Victorian courts today after protesters delayed a Qantas flight and invaded the playing area at the Australian Open last year. Max Chalmers reports.

Three women will face Victorian courts today in relation to two separate refugee protests, one of which saw the interruption of the men’s final at the Australian open.

Karoline Morwitzer and Emily Connors were charged after allegedly making a dramatic drop onto the court at Rod Laver Arena during the 2015 men’s singles final, in an attempt to draw global attention to refugees held on Manus Island.

new matilda, karoline morwitzer
Karoline Morwitzer.

The pair will front a Melbourne court today, with police alleging they breached sections of a State Act barring entry to ‘sporting competition space’ and disrupting proceedings without a ‘reasonable excuse’. If convicted, the pair could face heavy fines.

Update: Morwitzer and Connors were both handed an unconditional dismissal, avoiding a conviction or fine.

The 2015 protest garnered widespread media coverage, and inspired a second similar protest at the Cricket World Cup later in the year.

Coincidentally, a third Melbourne woman, 22-year-old Jasmine Pilbrow, is also facing court today on separate charges stemming from a refugee protest.

In February 2015 Pilbrow bought a last minute ticket for Qantas flight 383 and then refused to be seated, preventing the plane from taking off and delivering a Tamil asylum seeker on board to Darwin. Advocates feared that if delivered, the man would be deported from there to Sri Lanka. In an act of solidarity, two other passengers joined Pilbrow in the protest. All eventually disembarked from the flight.

Pilbrow was subsequently handed a ban by Qantas – which was lifted in July last year – and then charged under the Civil Aviation Act for alleged ‘interference with crew or aircraft’, a crime with a maximum punishment of two years imprisonment.

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In a written statement, Pilbrow called on Qantas to stop participating in the domestic transfer or removal of asylum seekers from Australia.

“Qantas say that ‘everyone has the right to return home safely’ and claim to respect human rights. They have an opportunity to live up to their own corporate values by refusing to carry vulnerable asylum seekers against their will,” she said.

Civil disobedience has been a tactic used increasingly by refugee advocates as the bipartisan commitment to offshore processing and detention, as well as boat turnbacks, has solidified in recent years.

In February, two Melbourne women belayed from the Yarra Bend Bridge to protest the return of young refugees to Nauru as part of the #LetThemStay campaign. In late 2015 yet another Melbourne woman, Jill Sparrow, was forcibly removed from a sit-in at a Department of Immigration building while breastfeeding her young son.

Refugees on Nauru have also been holding their own actions, with tensions rising both there and on Manus Island in the past week.

After their hearing today, the Australian Open protesters noted the situation on Manus and vowed to continue acts of solidarity in the future.

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Max Chalmers

Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.

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