Trial day four – the Peace Pilgrims take the stand

Day four in the Alice Springs supreme court for the five peace pilgrims charged with trespassing on Pine Gap. And this one was really our most important day so far as we finally got to give our testimony. Again we stopped for prayers outside the court. The bible passage I was reminded of was Matthew 10 as Jesus sends out the disciples. He tells them “when they arrest you and put you before the courts, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for the Holy Spirit will speak through you.” Not to say we hadn’t put in preparatory work, but we were definitely counting on some spiritual help!
First Margaret continued her statement, and then she faced down cross-examination from the prosecutor Mr McHugh. We got a sample of what the questioning would be like – trying to beat our defence by saying we had no ability to actually disrupt operations at Pine Gap. Margaret refused to be pinned down though and stuck stoically to the point that non-violent direct action always means resistance by the mere fact of your presence. Eventually Mr McHugh was forced to admit defeat and give up.
Which meant it was time for the next witness – that was me. I gave a detailed account of the US drone program and the reasons I believed it needed to be disrupted; from learning about the role of Pine Gap and signals intelligence in identifying targets, to the legal questions about extra-judicial assassinations, the dehumanization of enemies that drone warfare facilitates, and hearing the voices of drone whistleblowers victims. I also spoke about my sincere belief that social movements can bring about great social change, and the power of a small group of ordinary people taking a public stand against violence. I was grateful that Mr McHugh’s cross-examination questions gave me a chance to further elaborate on this last point.
That brought Franz up to the stand. He spoke about the importance of music in his life and in creating change; and recounted the story of our incursion into Pine Gap. Just as he got to the climactic point it all got too much and he broke down in tears. Take that, prosecution who keep objecting to evidence on the grounds it’s emotive! Franz blamed tiredness after a very busy and nerve-wracking week, but he was rescued in any event by the lunch break which gave him time to recompose himself. When we got back, Franz showed the court a clip from the Tonje Hessen Schei documentary Drone; a powerful film which had been shown in Alice a few days before our lament last year.
Tim got up next. He is a man of many talents, but I don’t think it’s unfair to say he is not the most confident public speaker. Still, he gave a good account of his lifestyle and reasons for resistance; as well as relating the story of how his cousin Sam along with two friends walked onto a spy base similar to Pine Gap at Waihopai, New Zealand. They sliced with a sickle the weather dome that covered one of the satellite dishes, and were subsequently found not guilty by a jury who ruled they were acting legally to defend others. Hint hint 😉
With the afternoon creeping by, we called our second witness Richard Tanter. Richard is the foremost scholarly expert on Pine Gap, and he gave a characteristically detailed account of what the base does and its role in the US drone program. Mr McHugh had objected to Professor Tanter’s appearance on the grounds that the evidence could be emotive – he’s obviously never read those Nautilus Institute papers! It was great having Richard there talking about this subject he has done so much to shed light on over the years. Even beyond his evidence, so much of what we were able to say in court was indebted to the tireless and invaluable work of Richard and the late Des Ball.
There was still time for our final testimony from Jim. He had a bit of a struggle getting some of the evidence he tendered accepted; but like a lot of us who are more comfortable in conversation than as orators, he really came to life when being cross-examined. Highlights included when he was asked whether he had considered other options like taking legal action against the government. Jim answered “I once did a citizen’s arrest of Peter Dutton for his war crimes”.
“How did that go?”
“I think he was embarrassed, but mostly he went unpunished”.
Perhaps unwisely, Mr McHugh pressed on. At one point the questions turned to the constitutionally enshrined separation of powers. Jim replied he felt the concept was a bit of a myth, and gave as an example the fact that the last time he was charged under the act that presently finds us in court, he had his conviction overturned then watched the government change the law to stop the court from doing that again.
Before the close of the day, the jury was sent out for the beginnings of the discussion of whether our defence will be accepted as valid. That conversation will continue tomorrow, but as for today I was so proud of all my co-accused and how they spoke in the court.
Last week we gathered with some Alice Springs locals to discuss the transformative power of lament. The conversation was heavily influenced by theologian Walter Brueggemann. A quote from him was used then, and I thought of it again today. Walter says the task of the prophetic voice is to “unveil truth in the face of ideology; to voice grief in the face of denial; and to proclaim hope as a counter to despair.”
Peace, Andy.

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Trial Day Three – defence opens

The five Pine Gap peace pilgrims were back in court today after a couple of days off. The weekend was not spent idly mind you – besides lots of case planning, we did a lament service on Saturday night at ANZAC Hill, and a public meeting at the town council building where we heard perspectives on Pine Gap from a couple of the peace pilgrims, Nautilus Institute’s Richard Tanter, former senator Scott Ludlam and US drone whistleblower Lisa Ling.
So with our spirits (if not our bodies) re-energised, we headed to court again this morning. Outside the court we stopped together for a few prayers and words of support, then entered for what would be quite a dramatic day.
The prosecution still had to finish giving their evidence, which began with the last couple of police officers. Through them came the photos and video of our lament we had taken on the morning in question. It was nice for the videos to get another screening, as at 4am when they were originally live-streamed (with no forewarning for obvious reasons) there was a limited audience.
Unfortunately the re-screening didn’t change the fact that it is extremely difficult to make anything out in either the photos or videos. The viola playing is hindered by being done on the move up a steep and rocky hill, while the cinematography struggles with the fact it was filmed in pitch darkness with only the flimsy light of a head-torch, plus it was done while moving away from the hastily pursuing police. Fortunately the jury is by now well-acquainted enough with the story to make out what was on their screen.
A few cross-examination questions about police experiences at the anti-war IPAN conference completed the prosecution evidence just before lunch. Which meant it was time for the first big question of our defence – would we be able to present it?
Since the first day of the trial you see, the prosecution had been indicating to the judge that they were opposed to us giving our legal defence (of defending others in an extraordinary emergency – section 10.4 of the criminal code) in front of the jury. The Crown believes our defence is invalid, and thinks the judge will agree with them and therefore it would confuse the jury to see what would later be disregarded. Our team of hotshot lawyers had compiled a submission to argue why we should at least be able to present the evidence in front of the jury. And whether it was due to our legal expertise or not, Justice Reeves ruled in our favour in that respect.
And so we began with a powerful opening statement delivered by Margaret. “At Pine Gap,” she said, “data is collected and processed from satellites orbiting high above and relayed to the US military to provide real time targeting information for bombing runs and targeted drone assassination program; resulting in death, suffering and property destruction on a vast scale.”
It was amazing to cut through the formalities of the courtroom with such powerful words – in a way it felt like we were getting away with something naughty. And yet what else were we going to say? Of course our belief is that is the function of Pine Gap and we needed to act to put a stop to it. Why else would someone risk the penalty that we have?
With that done, we called our first witness. Well, we had another argument with the prosecution first. They opposed our witness Scott Ludlam because he wasn’t allowed to speak on anything that happened in his work as a senator (parliamentary privilege laws, you see). We responded that Scott had done things related to Pine Gap outside of parliament and therefore should be able to speak about that. Happily, the judge agreed again. The prosecutor Mr McHugh proceeded to object to nearly every question, which was a test of our amateur lawyer abilities, but somewhere between the objections we got some good information out of Scott on Pine Gap.
Next Margaret gave her testimony. It was a good talk about a life spent pursuing peace, about her late husband Bryan Law (who was one of the four Pine Gap citizen’s inspectors in 2005 and a key part of the last court case) and their combined activist efforts within the Cairns community. She talked about hearing former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser on the need to end Australia’s military alliance with the US (including Pine Gap), and in fact was able to play an interview Malcolm had done with ABC radio.
Two former politicians in the court in one afternoon! There’s a few more I wouldn’t mind putting on the stand to ask about Pine Gap’s activities, but I guess that will have to do for now.
That ended another day in court, one where we got to celebrate a couple of small victories. Who knows? They might have even inched us a tiny bit closer to the ultimate goal of a world based on principles of justice and peace rather than violence and the rule of the strongest.
The nature of non-violence is that it can bring great changes, but mostly in small increments – transformation that happens first in our own hearts and minds, then usually in the people we come into contact with, or maybe through the media if you do something crazy like walk on to a top-secret spy base. It says that changes won by force are pyrrhic victories – real peace is never won by the barrel of a gun. This is why for us, the way we relate to each other and to others in the court (including the prosecution who in a couple of days are literally going to demand we be sent to prison) is as important as presenting the facts about Pine Gap and the mass destruction it causes. Tomorrow we’ll be back again to do all of those things.
Peace, Andy.

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War on Trial Public forum on Periscope

WAR ON TRIAL Public forum will be broadcast on the WagePeaceau Periscope channel.
Watch, comment, like, ask questions.
Professor Richard Tanter – President of ICAN
Scott Ludlam – Long time peace activist
Margaret Pestorius – Peace Pilgrim
Lisa Ling – Drones Whistle blower
Join us in Alice Springs at the Andy McNeill Room, Alice Springs Town Council on Gap Road
or on the WagePeaceau Periscope channel

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Trial Day Two – We went to break the denial most Australians live in when it comes to this US base in the middle of our country

Day two of court for the five Pine Gap peace pilgrims, and the end of a long week during which we have all become very familiar faces to the friendly staff of the Alice Springs Supreme Court.
The day was sadly lacking in much courtroom drama, taken up as it was by prosecution witnesses – all of whom were police recounting in excruciating detail the events of the early morning of September 29, 2016.
The first witness, head of the Federal Police at the base, was another veteran of the epic three week trial of the four Pine Gap citizen’s inspectors in 2007. Some good reminiscences were exchanged during cross-examination.
Our efforts at shedding light on Pine Gap and its operations in cross-examination of witnesses didn’t come to much, though we had fun at times. Like when, after repeated accounts of how dangerously rocky and steep the terrain was, Margaret asked one of the cops whether she looked like the kind of person who could climb Everest after four hours hiking through the dark and no sleep. Or when we asked another to explain in layman’s terms what the police wrestling move “arm bar take down” looks like. Best call of the day though came from Jim. On being told we would have to return the dvds of CCTV footage because of national security reasons, Jim said “I’ll have to contact Vladimir Putin to get back the copy I lent him”. Even got a smile from the prosecution.
The final evidence of the day was the video records of interview. At this point the serious pretensions of the court faded into farce as we were presented with audio and vision that didn’t line up; adding a surreal edge to otherwise remarkably dull footage of us wrapped in blankets in the watch house, having our rights read to us for five minutes before refusing an interview.
The exception was Margaret, who despite exhaustion gave a very spirited interview about going to the mountain to witness this hidden place which is the cause of so much death; about breaking the denial most of Australia live in most of the time when it comes to this US base in the middle of our country.
That was the end of court for another day – probably not the most eventful day the Supreme Court has had. But the peace pilgrims were not the biggest story in Northern Territory justice today – that was the release of the royal commission into youth detention, a report that called for the controversial Don Dale prison to be closed. After finishing in the afternoon we headed up the road to the Magistrates Court, where a rally was being held against youth detention.
There are some similarities between the two cases – in the name of responding to anti-social behaviour the state has developed an immense system of institutional violence that can justify torturing kids. In the case of Pine Gap, the claim is that to combat terrorism requires a never ending war that has hardly stopped terrorist attacks but has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forces many more into a state of permanent fear of the unmanned drones hovering above their heads. Or an extraordinary surveillance system that monitors the online activities of everybody in the world; seeing us all as potential suspects and enemies.
In this context, what Margaret spoke about in her interview was so prescient – the need to open our eyes to the violence perpetrated in our own names – to confront it face to face, to lament and commit to a new and better way.
There are a couple of events planned over the weekend and the chance to hear on Sunday from some experts on Pine Gap. It will be nice to have a break from court, though the park next door will be a less fun place without our eclectic bunch of humans and dogs, banners and peace poppies. Court will resume on Monday, when the prosecution will presumably finish giving their evidence and we will hopefully begin giving ours.
Peace, Andy.

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Support the #PineGapPilgrims

We were lamenting war and praying for peace at Pine Gap. We have been found guilty of "being" in a prohibited area, and await sentencing. Now we need your help and support:
  1. To get involved sign up for Wage Peace Newsletter for updates, invitation to actions, call outs. Also to halt the march of the military in our universities and communities. Share this information with your friends and networks.
  2. Donate to help us with the costs of travelling back from Alice Springs and general costs that we incurred fighting this case.
  3. Support us with Actions in Alice Springs, Brisbane and Cairns on December 4th when we will be sentenced in the Brisbane Federal Court