Islanders riot over death in custody

source: The Age November 27 2004

By Roberta Mancuso, Steve Connolly

Angry mobs burnt down buildings and threatened to kill police and media during a riot yesterday over a death in custody on troubled Palm Island, off the north Queensland coast.

Police took control of the airport, school and hospital after up to 300 members of the Aboriginal community rampaged over the death of local man Cameron Doomadgee. Residents torched the island's police station, lobbed petrol bombs at the police residential barracks and attacked other government buildings.

Some residents, contractors and public servants, including 22 teachers, were evacuated from the island as police from Townsville and Cairns were flown in to reinforce officer numbers.

Police last night declared an emergency state, giving them complete control of the island.

More than 100 police reinforcements were being flown from nearby Townsville, as well as Cairns and Brisbane, while Queensland Premier Peter Beattie and Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson called for calm.

Violence erupted with the release of the results of an autopsy on Mr Doomadgee, 36, who died in police custody last Friday. He was found to have four broken ribs and died from a ruptured liver.

Mr Atkinson said Mr Doomadgee's injuries resulted from a scuffle with police when he was being taken from a prison van.

"There was a scuffle and the police officer and the person who has died then fell to the ground on some concrete steps," he said, "and it is my understanding that the injuries sustained by the deceased person were entirely consistent with that version of events."

Mr Beattie said he was shocked at the damage on Palm Island and appealed for calm.

"We're appealing for people to lead. We are prepared to work with the community but the leaders of Palm Island have got to take charge and act responsibly to restore some order," Mr Beattie said. Mr Atkinson was flying to Townsville to assess what Mr Beattie described as a serious situation.

Townsville-based freelance cameraman Steve Hume, who was caught up in the riot, said the violence erupted within minutes of a public meeting about Mr Doomadgee's autopsy.

He said the scene quickly degenerated into a "war zone" when community leaders revealed the results of the post-mortem examination.

"I have never been that frightened in my life," he said. "We looked behind us and they started running towards the police station, a couple of hundred of them. It just got out of control.

"It just escalated so fast. In less than five minutes they went from calm to absolutely ballistic, I've never seen anything like it.

"They threatened to kill us. We've just done the bolt, we went to the council chambers and locked ourselves in there."