Woman Pepper Sprayed At Point Blank By Police Has ‘Resisting Arrest’ Charge Dropped

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New South Wales Police have withdrawn charges of resisting arrest against two coal seam gas protestors, one of whom was pepper sprayed in the face without apparent provocation while her arms were restrained.

The incident occurred in February at a protest against Santos’ proposed coal seam gas field in the Pilliga Forest, in north-west New South Wales. Two women, Kerri Tonkin and Cyd Fenwick, had ‘locked on’ to machinery to hinder work.

The demonstration was part of broader civil disobedience campaign to stop the Narrabri Gas Project.

At the time, Police conceded pepper spray had been used against Tonkin, but said the protestors had resisted arrest. But according to Chief Solicitor at the Environmental Defenders Office, Sue Higginson, those charges have now been withdrawn.

Higginson said Superintendent Paul McDonald from the Barwon Local Area Command had written to the Environmental Defenders Office to say: “…after a review on the matters involving Fenwick and Tonkin I have determined the Resist Arrest charge against both of these persons be withdrawn.”

The women are aged 46 and 47, respectively, and were connected by a piece of steel piping locked to Santos’ machinery. They have maintained from the beginning they did nothing to provoke such an aggressive reaction.

At the time Kerri Tonkin said: “I was in a vulnerable position with only one arm free and without the freedom to move around.” Protestors alleged that after Tonkin was pepper sprayed at point-blank range she was thrown over the arm of the excavator she was locked to while her arm was still locked in metal piping.

“The actions of the police officers were excessive and dangerous. I’m surprised I didn’t leave with a dislocated shoulder or a broken arm,” Tonkin said. The women are now considering legal action.

Kerri Tonkin, pictured after police pepper sprayed her while she was locked onto equipment in protest at coal seam gas mining in the Pilliga.
Kerri Tonkin, pictured after police pepper sprayed her while she was locked onto equipment in protest at coal seam gas mining in the Pilliga.

“The women are now making a formal complaint to the NSW Ombudsman and looking at what legal recourse they may have in response to the way they were treated, which they say was entirely excessive and unreasonable,” Higginson said.

Lawyers at the Environmental Defenders Office have reviewed footage of the incident.

“It appeared from that footage that a police officer did spray what appeared to be pepper spray onto the face of Ms Tonkin while she was peacefully attached to Ms Fenwick around a piece of machinery,” Higginson said.

“As her arms were placed in a devise she had no way of protecting her eyes or face from the spray.

“There was no direct after care provided to the woman – which is a requirement under the NSW police guidelines for the use of pepper spray. An ambulance was eventually called and the two women were treated for pepper spray application.”

In response to questions about whether they now accepted excessive force was used, and whether any officers involved in the incident have faced disciplinary action, New South Wales Police issued the following statement:

“As matters remain before the court it would be inappropriate to comment further on the specific cases.

“NSW Police will continue to respect the right for people to demonstrate lawfully however if people act unlawfully they will be arrested.”

Kerri Tonkin and Cyd Fenwick are yet to face court for charges of Unlawful Entry on Inclosed Land.

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Thom Mitchell

Thom Mitchell is New Matilda's Environment Reporter.

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