Three far-right demonstrators who beheaded a dummy to protest against a planned mosque in western Victoria have each been fined $2000 and convicted for ridiculing Muslims.
United Patriots Front leader Blair Cottrell and his supporters Neil Erikson and Chris Shortis staged the mock beheading outside Bendigo Council in October 2015, complete with fake blood.
That political demonstration has seen them become the first people convicted under Victoria’s Racial and Religious Tolerance Act of 2002, which makes it a criminal offence to incite ‘hatred, serious contempt, revulsion or severe ridicule’ against a group of people.
Neil Erikson, 32, was one of three men fined for beheading a dummy outside Bendigo Council
United Patriots Front leader Blair Cottrell was heckled outside Melbourne Magistrates Court
The men, who represented themselves in Melbourne Magistrates Court during a two-day hearing, were told they had ‘crossed the line’ by cutting off the dummy’s head with a sword and repeatedly chanting, ‘Allahu Akbar!’, the Arabic term for ‘God is great’.
Magistrate John Hardy said their video was designed to incite serious contempt or severe ridicule for Muslims in an effort to induce ‘as many like-minded people’ as possible to their rally to be held six days later.
Cottrell, 27, Erikson, 32 and Shortis, 46, were spared a six-month jail sentence for their demonstration but they were each convicted and fined $2000 plus $79.50 in statutory costs.
Shortis, a Seventh Day Adventist, indicated he had political aspirations and as a result, would not reoffend.
However, he argued he believed the conviction moved by the Director of Public Prosecutions was unfair.
‘While people have mocked my faith as a Christian…a court of law is not the place for hurt feelings,’ he said.
‘I am concerned here today the DPP has the power to institute a blasphemy law in disguise.
‘There is a red line that is crossed that a state has the power to be offended on behalf of a class of persons.’
Mr Hardy thanked the men for behaving courteously in court, but warned them if they repeated the behaviour, another judicial officer would likely order a more severe punishment.
Blair Cottrell is met with vocal left-wing protesters outside Melbourne Magistrates Court
Scuffles broke out between Victorian Police and left-wing demonstrators outside court
Alternative charges of wilfully damaging and defacing the footpath and wall were struck out in light of the inciting contempt charge being proved.
Earlier on Tuesday, Cottrell told the court it was outside his control what people drew from watching the video, and that he did not intend to ‘stir up’ contempt for Muslims.
‘I criticised in that video a tenet of a religion – no specific person or class of people,’ he said.
Shortis argued the Australian Constitution allowed for fair comment and that the video made a comment about beheadings, an illegal activity, not a ‘lawful religious belief’.
The three men had beheaded a dummy to protest against council approval for a new mosque
The United Patriots Front demonstrators spilled fake blood outside Bendigo Council chambers
Chris Shortis told media commentator Mark Latham Victoria’s laws were like blasphemy laws
Last week, he told media commentator Mark Latham the Victorian law, introduced by the Bracks Labor government, amounted to a blasphemy law and needed to be challenged.
‘In essence, what they are trying to achieve … it’s the same thing if you are in Saudi Arabia,’ he said.
‘If you mock Islam, you’ll be charged with blasphemy laws and it really smells like blasphemy laws in disguise.’
Construction on the Bendigo mosque started in August, following two years of battles and violent street protests against the council’s approval of the development application.
The High Court in June 2016 dismissed a challenge to the mosque development and ordered the plaintiff to pay costs.