Unions, human rights groups and environmental organisations say police overreached in their treatment of protesters arrested after a bungled raid on the weekend, and have urged officers to act responsibly amid plans for climate action across Sydney in coming days.
The police operation targeting Blockade Australia protesters in the Colo Valley, in Sydney’s north-west, unravelled on Sunday when an activist at the remote property noticed two people wearing camouflage gear in bushland to the rear of the camp.
The activists claimed that when the men were confronted they only said: “We’ve been compromised.”
Seven protesters were then arrested after attempting to prevent the men leaving in a car which had come to collect them, but the lawyer for the protesters, Mark Davis, said he will argue none of the officers identified themselves as police prior to the confrontation.
An eighth person has since been arrested and charged.
On Thursday, 18 civil society organisations expressed alarm at the New South Wales police operation, and called for the force to act “responsibly, with integrity and respect for human rights” in response to protests planned to start on Sunday.
Amnesty International Australia, the Environmental Defenders Office, Maritime Union of Australia, New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties, and Greenpeace Australia Pacific were among the signatories to the statement.
“Sending in 100 armed police officers to threaten and intimidate people planning a peaceful protest is alarming and disproportionate,” the Human Rights Law Centre legal director, Alice Drury, said.
“NSW police and politicians should commit to protecting protest for the health of our democracy.”
But the deputy premier, Paul Toole, who is also the police minister, and the head of a police strike force targeting environmental activists instead condemned Blockade Australia as a group intent on dangerous disruption rather than peaceful protest.
“This isn’t peaceful protesting, these are people pulling stunts that put lives at risk and stop people trying to get [to] work and get their kids to school and police simply won’t tolerate it,” Toole said in a statement.
The acting assistant commissioner and commander of Strike Force Guard, Paul Dunstan, said: “These activities are not only dangerous to themselves, but they put the lives of members of the public and those rescuing them at risk.”
“It is incredibly disappointing that they want to cause this inconvenience to good people who are just going about their business, especially given the hard times many have gone through in recent years due to the pandemic.”
The NSW Greens have lodged a request for papers regarding the Sunday operation which they hope will uncover information about what led to the investigation.
NSW police have declined to answer questions from Guardian Australia, but Dunstan said on Sunday that the officers had been on the property lawfully, and then obtained a further search warrant after the camouflaged officers were confronted.
He said investigations had been brought forward by “a day or two” because of the confrontation.
Late on Thursday, the Greens planned to move a motion in the NSW parliament calling for protest laws introduced in April to be disallowed, but expected the motion to be voted down.
The motion by upper house MP Abigail Boyd had been supported by unions and civil and legal groups.