Human rights lawyers across Australia have condemned the arrest of a Victorian woman accused of inciting an anti-lockdown protest on Facebook, with one calling her detainment a “disturbing development – irrespective of the current state of emergency.”
Zoe Buhler, 28, was detained at her Ballarat home yesterday after planning a public demonstration against the state’s coronavirus lockdown rules.
The Facebook event, which has now been deleted, called for residents to challenge what she called “extreme measures” and “scare tactics” from the State Government.
Ballarat is currently under Stage 3 stay-at-home restrictions, which forbid large public gatherings.
Buhler, who is pregnant, live-streamed her arrest on Facebook.
Video of the incident shows a plain-clothed officer handcuffing Buhler while another explained the charge.
“I have an ultrasound in an hour,” Buhler said, before claiming she was prepared to delete the post.
She’s slated to face court in January.
The footage has been viewed on Facebook nearly 7 million times, with many of those views coming from conservative and far-right Facebook groups.
Liberal MP Craig Kelly, an outspoken lockdown opponent whose own feed is filled with misleading content about treatments for coronavirus, has issued eight posts about the arrest in the past day.
While the footage has become a right-wing rallying cry, human rights organisations have also stepped in to question the pre-emptive arrest of a protest organiser – despite their broad support for lockdowns that are backed by health officials.
Rosalind Croucher, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, today said she was “dismayed at the handling of the arrest of a woman in Ballarat—handcuffed despite her compliance, in front of her family.”
“Our rights and freedoms may be limited to control infection, but always proportionate to the risk—and managed appropriately,” she said.
“Arresting people pre-emptively for the act of organising peaceful protests or for social media posts is something that happens all too often under authoritarian regimes, and it should not be happening in a democracy like Australia,” said Elaine Pearson, Australian director at Human Rights Watch.
Echoing reactions to footage of the arrest, Pearson said “heavy-handed police tactics” could backfire, effectively “galvanising members” of anti-lockdown groups.
You can disagree with the anti-lockdown movement but still be alarmed by this arrest and how it was handled. The issue here is the precedent it sets https://t.co/guIfwpt4pN
— Sophie McNeill (@Sophiemcneill) September 3, 2020
Pearson’s view was today backed up by civil liberties group Liberty Victoria, whose Senior Vice-President, Sam Norton, today said, “This is a free democracy in which we live – not a police state.”
Police should exercise discretion and restraint. If police want citizens to co-operate and work together to get through this crisis, they should treat them with dignity and decency and work with people in the community, rather than alienate them.https://t.co/4DP79BKlE9
— Liberty Victoria (@LibertyVic) September 3, 2020
Buhler’s arrest has sparked new conversations about policing during the pandemic, which has been a contentious issue since day one.
It also raises further questions about police crackdowns on proposed protest movements. While Victoria’s lockdowns enjoy strong support from the general community, it’s likely that reactions to Buhler’s arrest would be different if she were supporting another cause.
Despite all of that, Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Luke Cornelius today defended the officers’ actions, telling reporters he was satisfied they acted appropriately.
“In this case we’re alleging this individual engaged in serious criminal behaviour inciting a public protest at a time when public protest is unlawful,” he said.
“I absolutely support our members in holding selfish people to account.”
Nobody enjoys being under lockdown. The sooner we grind through it, the sooner we can get life back to normal. It’s yet to be seen of arresting would-be protesters, before they can even get out of their pyjamas, will form a part of that new normal.