Environmental activists face ‘fever pitch’ of repression from Australian governments, report says

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Legal and green groups highlight harsh anti-protest laws amid claims of surveillance of conservationists

A joint report by human rights bodies and environment groups has found activists are increasingly facing repression by Australian governments.

The report comes as the ABC publishes allegations VicForests carried out a campaign of surveillance against anti-logging protesters.

The report by the Human Rights Law Centre, Greenpeace Australia Pacific and the Environmental Defenders Office, published on Thursday, tracks how pressure from business interests, legal changes and policing tactics have converged to create an environment of repression for those protesting inaction on the climate crisis.

Related: As young climate strikers, we are sick of conference upon conference. The clock is ticking | Ella Simons

They say the introduction of harsh anti-protest laws around the country, the use of heavy-handed bail conditions normally reserved for organised crime and excessive penalties given to those who commit minor offences while protesting indicate a worrying trend.

General counsel at Greenpeace Australia Pacific, Katrina Bullock, said the trend had been building over the previous five years but is now “reaching fever pitch.”

“Before it was something very difficult to prove and it was happening in a covert way,” Bullock said. “I think the Australian government and the fossil fuel industry are getting more desperate now that countries are moving away from fossil fuels, and they’re attempting to shut down this dissent.”

In addition, the report warns about proposed reforms such as the Australian government’s charities bill that could be used to deregister organisations that engage in climate activism and the growing popularity of legal actions aimed at silencing opponents.

Senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre Yusur Al-Azzawi said these legal actions were carried out by companies against individuals or organisations with the aim of delaying protests, tying up resources or bankrupting them.

“But what’s really frightening is that we’re not talking about one or two isolated incidents, we’re looking at a systemic and broad-ranging attack on climate defenders,” Al-Azzawi said. “We’ve just come back from Cop26. It really is time for governments to take action instead of attacking people protesting their inaction.”

Meanwhile, the ABC alleges that conservationist Susan Rees was subjected to surveillance by VicForests – a for-profit company owned by the Victorian government – in 2011 after the organisation hired a private investigator to monitor her activities in an effort to obtain “dirt”.

Related: Climate activist sentenced to 12 months in jail over coal train blockade in NSW

According to the ABC, when Rees was made deputy chair of the Australian arm of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international not-for-profit organisation that runs a sustainable timber certification scheme, in 2019 VicForest attempted to discredit her in a formal complaint about alleged bias, based on her tweets. Rees told the ABC the complaint was part of an effort by VicForests to shut-down voices they disliked, while FSC said she remains a valued director.

The company also complained about another FSC director, Australian National University scientists Chris Taylor whose research alleged VicForrest was engaged in illegal logging, a claim denied by VicForests. Taylor told the ABC: “The allegations [of bias] were investigated by FSC Australia and they were rejected”. According to the ABC, an investigation into the complaint made no findings of wrongdoing by the directors.

A spokesperson for VicForests said the claims made in the ABC report “do not reflect the culture, the values and the people of VicForests”.

“VicForests takes historical claims it hired a private investigator in 2010 and 2011 very seriously and will commission an independent investigation into the matter to address these claims and establish the facts,” they said.

Related: Logging exempt from environment laws despite destroying threatened species’ Victorian habitat, court finds

Climate activists in New South Wales who have been blockading the port of Newcastle, the biggest coal port in the world, have been threatened with prosecution under laws that carry 25-year sentences.

NSW police set up Strike Force Tuohy to target “disruptive protesters” after the deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, complained earlier this month that protesters stopped $60m in coal shipments.

On Monday, one 22-year-old activist was sentenced to 12 months in prison with a non-parole period of six months for obstructing coal trains in the Hunter region of NSW.

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