Boycott - Reuters - May 31, 2010
A Belgian demonstrator displays a sign reading "Boycott Israel, racist state" Photo by Reuters
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Eleven pro-Palestinian protesters had charges against them dismissed in a Melbourne court Monday while five others must wait to find out whether they will be penalized for their part in a violent scuffle with police last year.

The 16 protesters – including James Crafti, a Melbourne-based Jew – were in the Melbourne Magistrates' Court facing multiple charges brought by police following a protest last July outside Max Brenner, a franchise of the Israeli-owned chocolate shop.

Three policemen were injured in the protest, which was part of the global boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign.

The protesters, mostly students from the socialist Left, claimed Max Brenner’s parent company, Strauss Group, engaged in “ongoing ethnic cleansing” by providing food packages to the Israel Defense Forces.

In dismissing charges of trespassing and besetting, Judge Simon Garnett said: “It cannot be said that it was the actions of the protestors that caused any obstruction, hindering or impediment to members of the public.

“They did not surround the premises with hostile intent or demeanor.”

He said the protesters had a “lawful right” to demonstrate, adding that some of the conduct of police was heavy handed. More than 150 protesters demonstrated outside Max Brenner last July 1; 132 police were on duty that night, the court was told.

The judge said five of the defendants still had a case to answer regarding charges of assaulting police and resisting arrest. They will face court at a later date.

But Rob Stary, a lawyer for some of the defendants, hailed the “landmark” verdict, saying freedom of political expression had been upheld.

“We don’t live in a totalitarian regime,” the Australian Broadcasting Corporation quoted him as saying outside court.

“This is not Syria or Iraq or Egypt where there is a repression of people.

“This is Australia where we should be able to engage in robust debate in these important issues.”

Vashti Kenway, one of the protesters, wrote on a blog Monday that the verdict was “a big win for our right to protest in public places in Melbourne.”

“We have beaten back their attempts to criminalize dissent and their attempts to silence a public pro-Palestine voice in Australia,” she said.

But Peter Wertheim, executive director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, described it as “disturbing” that the charges of trespassing were dismissed.

“It seems counter-intuitive to suggest that someone has the right to remain on your property, or property you are responsible for controlling, when you order them to leave, merely because they say they are expressing their political views,” he said. “I think most people would find this unacceptable.”

A support group – “Defend the Boycott Israel 19” – has planned another demonstration this Friday at the same shopping mall in Melbourne. “Students for Palestine have invited both those who support Palestine and other progressive activists to join us in taking back our public squares from Melbourne’s corporations,” the website said.

On the steps of the courthouse Monday, supporters of the defendants held banners declaring “Students for Palestine” and “Max Brenner – Apartheid in every cup” while chanting “Free, free Palestine.”

Michael Danby, a Jewish legislator of the governing Labor Party, organized a counter-protest after last July’s fracas, encouraging high-profile Australians to join sit-ins at Max Brenner chocolate shops across Australia. Among those who joined him were former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, Aboriginal leader Warren Mundine as well as identities from media and the arts.

Danby, the chair of Australia’s Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade Committee, said of the protesters at the time: “These people are prejudiced fanatics who should look into their soul. While 1500 people are murdered in Syria, they launch their own sad little attack on a chocolate shop because it also has stores in Israel.”