Coal protester sentenced to 12 months in jail over Newcastle train blockade

Activists are outraged over the sentencing of 22-year-old Eric Serge Hebert, who was part of a group that successfully blocked coal exports in Newcastle for almost two weeks.

Eric Serge Herbert standing on a coal train in Newcastle.

Eric Serge Herbert standing on a coal train in Newcastle. Source: Twitter/Blockade Australia

Climate activist Eric Serge Herbert has been sentenced to 12 months in jail after stopping a coal train for five hours by climbing on top of it at the world’s biggest coal port in Newcastle.

The 22-year-old will be jailed for at least six months after being sentenced in Newcastle local court on Monday. 

He had been charged with hindering the working of mining equipment and assisting in obstruction of rail locomotive or rolling stock.

Standing on top of the coal train, Mr Herbert said in an earlier Facebook livestream: “We’re taking our future back.”

“When the government decides it’s going to destroy its people, the people will rise up.”

The first week of protests earlier this month, led by the Blockade Australia group, saw activists blocking railway tracks near the Port of Newcastle. The following week, they entered the port and stopped machinery from operating.

Blockade Australia said they learned about the sentencing last night.

“We are really, really concerned about this. He's the first climate activist [in our movement] that's been jailed for that length of time,” Zianna Fuad, an activist from Blockade Australia, told SBS News.

“I would see him as one of the first political prisoners that we've had in Australia on activism … which is really alarming.”

Ms Fuad decried the police response to the protests, with police setting up Strike Force Tuohy to target anti-coal protesters and threatening them with potential jail sentences up to 25 years.

She said protesters had blocked coal operations for a total of 65 hours and that 28 activists had been arrested in the course of the protests.

“We're not going to kind of cave into fear tactics,” she said.

“We're used to state repression as activists. We know that our actions are safe ... and that they're trying to discourage us from further action.”

NSW Police say they have arrested 31 people - 14 men and 17 women - who are all members of the same group.

They said protesters could face charges that carry a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison under Section 211 of the Crimes Act 1900, in addition to various trespass and rail disruption offences.

"Police formed Strike Force Tuohy as part of proactive operations to actively prevent and disrupt illegal protests in the Hunter/Newcastle region, which are putting public safety at risk," they said in a statement to SBS News.

"Officers from Strike Force Tuohy, with the assistance of Police Rescue, Traffic and Highway Patrol Command, Public Order and Riot Squad, PolAir and intelligence resources, stand ready to target anyone engaging in this dangerous and criminal behaviour, and will not hesitate to take the appropriate action."

Many of the protesters in Newcastle are young and "frustrated" with a lack of climate action by the governmnent. Source: Twitter/Blockade Australia

Commissioner Mick Fuller said last week that the protesters “are coming from other states and territories with particular expertise and they’re locking themselves onto these locomotives and tracks”.

“If you think about the danger that some of these passenger trains on those lines travelling at 160km/h … you could see hundreds of people die,” he said.

Police Minister David Elliott also hit back at the protesters last week. He said the government “will not tolerate protesters undermining commuter activities and causing significant damage to these local industries which employ people from across the region”.

But Ms Fuad said protesters were taking direct action as they felt unheard. She said many of the protesters were young Australians who felt frustrated by the government’s lack of climate action.

“As young people, we are really aware that we don't have much of a future if we continue on this trajectory. And we're really frustrated with the mechanisms that were given,” she said.

“We don't think voting is going to save the climate crisis. We don't believe that any party is going to be able to pull us out of this mess. We think that the community needs to rise up.

Ms Fuad said Australia was seen as "climate blockers" on the international stage and "fuelling the climate crisis".

SBS News contacted NSW Police for comment, who referred to previous statements they had made on the issue.

4 min read
Published 23 November 2021 at 2:48pm
By Eden Gillespie
Source: SBS News