A Victory for Dissent

Reta Kaur, anti-war activist, wins her court case

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Reta’s supporters rallied outside the court. Photo by Debbie Brennan.

After a trial, which went into a second day, Reta Kaur was found Not Guilty on 24 November 2004 of criminal damage worth $9,080 to two marble statues outside the U.S. Consulate in Melbourne. On March 20, 2003 she had written “The killing has started!” in red paint in a moment of shock and grief to protest the bombing of Iraq. Magistrate Frank Hodgens found that Reta had no intention of causing damage, that she believed the water soluble paint would wash off easily and had offered to remove it herself.  He also accepted that Reta was distressed by the news of the U.S.-led assault. This judgment on principles of law ended more than a year’s harassment and criminalisation of a peaceful protest.

On Friday morning, 19 November 2004, the first court day, Radical Women joined Women for Peace, the Moreland Peace Group and other anti-war activists outside Melbourne’s Magistrates Court. We handed out leaflets to passers-by, informing them of the case and saying that the warmongers should be punished, not those who dissent.

Women for Peace, which Reta founded, and Moreland Peace Group had started a peace vigil on 6 March 2003 outside the consulate. Reta explains: “We were there every day with our clothesline of bloodied clothes and a banner saying, ‘War is murder, rape and grief.’ We had the flags of the U.S., Australia and Britain, as objects of shame. Our display was very visual, and as the year wore on, it became more graphic. The clothesline was a backdrop for the frequent visits by the media.”

The original charge was for minor “wilful damage.” But it was increased, months later, to criminal damage. A guilty verdict would have left Reta with a criminal record and $9,080 for the clean-up cost to the marble. Reta states that the case against her was not about the paint: “It was to frighten us from standing outside the consulate, as we did every Monday for a year. It was harassment and intimidation by the powerful who wanted no opposition to its invasion and slaughter.  The cost of cleaning the statues was nothing compared to the billions of dollars wasted on wars. The agenda was to prosecute, demonise and frighten dissent, and teach the peace movement a lesson.”

The courtroom was packed with people who came to support Reta. Feminists, socialists, unionists, and peace activists took up all the seats. It was standing room only on the first day of the trial.

Justice has a price. Reta broke the law when she damaged private property with her message about Washington’s crime against humanity. In the eyes of the system, defending herself was equally unacceptable: “I knew that I was also being punished as a woman, a black woman and an older woman. I was warned by my first pro bono defence team of two women barristers (who dumped me eight days before my trial) that the magistrate would feel that a woman of my age of 59 should have known better. I was pressured by them to plead guilty to obtain a discounted sentence, show remorse, apologise, and get a good behaviour bond. Threats of jail and possible employment and travel implications were all brought up.

“I was also advised not to have supporters demonstrate outside the court, and not to fill the court, as this could intimidate the magistrates. A friend told me that if I went to court wearing my ethnic Indian clothes and covered my head with a veil I’d be finished. I was advised to dress western, appear mainstream and respectable. Not one person believed that I would be found not guilty, and John Howard’s landslide election victory appeared to confirm this further.

“I could not plead guilty for a lick of paint compared with the bombing of a disarmed Iraq. It was the war criminals who were guilty of crimes against humanity. I refused to be frightened by the law, and I could not see justice as a shopping trolley for a discounted sentence. If the court found me guilty, I was prepared to deal with that, but I could not condemn myself. That I could not accept.  So I went to court convinced of my innocence, and in my traditional Indian dress.”

How to win. “The presence of so many people in the court empowered me. I knew that ‘justice’ would be seen and witnessed by the many who came. This was criminalisation of peaceful protest and dissent amidst the culture of war and racism, an attempt to rein in activism and break us. Because of the continuing invasion, the promises of more war and the terror laws in our own countries, this is an attack on our freedoms. People have to keep up the dissent, build solidarity, and strengthen the peace movement.”

Another court case: On 7 and 8 March 2005, Reta Kaur and Caprice Turner will appear in court for their part in a peace vigil by Women for Peace at the War Memorial Shrine on Remembrance Day, 11 November 2003. Seven women went to the shrine and handed out leaflets with the message, “No more wars, peace in the 21st century.”

Caprice was charged with trespass, resisting arrest and assaulting police while trying to help Reta when she was dragged on the ground by police officers. Months later, Reta was charged with trespass and resisting arrest. Two days before her November court case, she was delivered an additional charge of offensive behaviour.

Says Reta, “We’ll be in court on International Women’s Day. We should celebrate IWD by packing the courtroom. Eighty percent of war casualties are women and children. Women need to challenge the war culture and our right to peaceful anti-war protests at the shrine.”

For more information, contact Reta Kaur on

Tel: 03-9387-6490 or email: info@womenforpeace.org.au

Website: www.womenforpeace.org.au 

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