A group of supporters gathered outside Mudgee Local Court on Friday morning to stand with the three protesters that blocked the Wilpinjong mine entrance last year.
Bev Smiles, Bruce Hughes and Stephanie Luke face charges under laws introduced by the NSW Government in October 2016 specifically cracking down on interference with “mining and other businesses or undertakings".
The charges include a maximum penalty of seven years in jail for anyone convicted of "intentionally or recklessly interfering with a mine".
Smiles, Hughes and Luke were arrested on April 12, 2017, blocking the mine entrance – timed to coincide with a shift change - the day after the the Planning Assessment Commission public hearing on the Wilpinjong extension.
The trio entered pleas of ‘not guilty’ in May.
The group’s solicitor, Sue Higginson of the Environmental Defenders Office NSW described, outside court before the hearing, the significance of the case.
“This is the first time the NSW Police have prosecuted the offences, that the protesters were charged with, since they were amended,” she said.
“What we’ll be doing is running what is called a ‘contested hearing’. We are really looking at how the court thinks these laws are to be applied to individuals that stand in front of a mine voicing their conscientious objection to what’s happened to the community.
“We recently saw Bob Brown in Tasmania taking the Tasmanian Anti Protester laws to the High Court. Bob Brown contested those laws saying that those laws were too harsh and they burdened the implied freedom of political communication – and he was successful.
“Those laws were held as invalid by the High Court of Australia,” she said.
“Our case today, runs a similar argument, we’re not arguing outright that the laws are invalid – but we’re arguing that if three people standing on a road outside of a mine voicing their conscientious objection is criminal behavior under these laws that carry a maximum penalty of seven years imprisonment, than that’s certainly a burden on the freedom of political communication.”
The Mudgee hearing follows a landmark Land and Environment Court case in Sydney that concluded, ‘the NSW Department of Planning failed to brief the Planning Assessment Commission about the need to consider potential greenhouse gas emissions from a planned expansion of Wilpinjong coal mine’.
The hearing continues in Mudgee Local Court.