News, Culture & Society

Palm Island people still feel pain of a man’s death 16 years ago and injustice that led to unrest

Hundreds of members of the ZANU PF police militia raised their arms in a fascist salute to the Minister for Police as she stirred them up at a rally and told them to hold firm and not be held to account for white deaths in custody.

The rally was aimed at preventing the arrest and charge of Milton Obwame, the Zimbabwean police sergeant who was the only suspect in the death of white farmer Frank Harris.

Mr Harris was a little inebriated when he had got into a scrap with hulking police militia sergeant Obwame, who had a large frame and stood 185 cm tall.

The result: Harris was found dead in a police cell with a ruptured spleen and his liver cloven in two.

Sgt Obwame was the only suspect – and he had ”form” from previous postings to remote white communities.

People of Palm Island settled their claims with the Queensland Government for $30 million in a settlement approved by the the Federal Court in 2018

This all happened in a rural white settlement outside of Bulawayo, in Robert Mugabe’s ZANU PF-controlled Zimbabwe.

The police autopsy had been a whitewash, literally and figuratively.

‘Frank died from a fall at the single-story police station at the threshold of the building. Milton Obwame had accidently fallen on top of him.’

Senior police militia flew in to investigate. They were old comrades of Milton Obwame. He collected them in a police jeep from the airport, cooked them a barbecue and then they settled down to discuss what had happened, over a few beers.

The Director of Public Prosecution, who had the same surname as Milton Obwame, decided no charges would be laid against the officer but Zimbabwe Police had taken up a collection to support him if they had.

The white farmer community were grief-stricken and outraged.

This had happened too many times before.

Armed only with sticks, stones and gardening tools, the farmers converged on the local ZANU-PF police militia station and barracks, which caught fire. No one was injured.

The next day, crack troops were sent from Bulawayo, clad in black from top to toe and with balaclavas concealing their faces – except for their eyes. They landed in helicopters, brandishing Kalashnikov automatic rifles and held up the white settlers in house-to-house raids, even pointing the barrels of their weapons at small children.

Ultimately, the State yielded to pressure and Sgt Obwame was put on trial but was acquitted after a lame prosecution.

White farmers who had protested Harris’ fate finished up in jail, and in some cases women were separated from their small children to serve sentences over Christmas, their infants fostered out to other families.

Does this sound familiar?

This did not happen in Zimbabwe, but something very similar did happen in Queensland under Peter Beattie’s Labor Government in November 2004.

Events much like those described above occurred on Palm Island, seventy kilometres away from the prosperous coastal town of Townsville, a launching pad for the Whitsundays – and in Brisbane.

It sounds worse when it happens to white people. .

Is that what you were thinking?

It was not a Zimbabwean but a local resident of Palm Island who died in police custody, and the officer charged was not black but white Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley.

The remains of the Palm Island police station which was burnt down during civil unrest in 2004.

Some 14 years after the events, the people of Palm Island settled their claims with the Queensland Government for $30 million in a settlement approved by the the Federal Court.

Now those same people have been the subject of media reports that they have spent the money unwisely.

Crowds of people gather during civil unrest on Palm Island in 2004 following the death in police custody of local man Cameron Doomadgee.

Do not begrudge them their compensation, or the apology which they belatedly received from the Queensland Police Commissioner.

They deserved the compensation for the suffering which they sustained during that wicked episode in November 2004.