Approximately 50 people were arrested at the Djab Wurrung protest today, with Victoria Police using additional powers allowed under the state of emergency to arrest, charge and fine protesters.

Of those 50 people, approximately 10 were arrested at the site and taken to Ararat Police Station, where they were charged with intentionally obstructing an emergency service worker on duty, refusing to leave a restricted access area and refusing to follow the Chief Health Officer’s directions.

Another 40 people were arrested for refusing to leave a restricted area and – again – failing to comply with the CHO’s directions. They were released pending summons, a police spokesperson said.

In addition, a “significant” number of people were issued with fines for breaching coronavirus restrictions, which currently do not allow for Melburnians to travel to regional Victoria.

Police are able to issue fines of up to almost $4,957 for taking part in an unlawful gathering, thanks to additional and broad powers given to CHO Brett Sutton under Victoria’s state of emergency.

Lidia Thorpe, the first Indigenous Senator for Victoria, said the fines would put people at risk of entering the justice system.

“This is a continual cycle of systemic oppression from the government, both state and federal,” she told PEDESTRIAN.TV.

When asked if it was an overreach of police powers, she said “absolutely”.

“They’ve been looking for any excuse to remove those land defenders from Djab Wurrung protest,” Thorpe said.

“The timing of the premier’s press conference yesterday was the time that they started to encroach on the [Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection] Embassy, so it was all a very calculated and well-thought out plan, and the police powers are part of that plan.”

Yesterday, a sacred 350-year-old yellow box tree, known as a directions tree, was felled – at almost the exact time Premier Dan Andrews announced long-awaited easing of restrictions for the state.

“It’s part of this racist and oppressive system that Aboriginal people have to deal with every day, day in and day out, and this is what needs to change in this country,” Thorpe said.

“These are innocent, unarmed people, peacefully protecting land that belongs to the Djab Wurrung people. Why is that unlawful?”

She described the felling of the tree as “like losing a loved one in your family”.

“I’m quite traumatised,” she said. “We were always willing to make way for the road, we had alternatives, we wanted to do this peacefully and respectfully, and the government used their force as they always have.”

Footage shared on social media today showed a protester being pinned down by four Victoria Police officers, screaming in what appears to be pain.

Victoria Ambulance confirmed they attended the scene at 11.30am, but did not treat or transfer anyone. Police said there were no reported injuries.

“Police removed camps and protesters from restricted areas to ensure the safety of all people in the area as highway construction work continues between Buangor and Ararat today,” a police statement said.

“General duties police were supported by specialist support units to remove protestors, with no injuries reported.”

Activists have been camped at the Djab Wurrung embassy since May 2018, protesting the $157 million stretch of highway that would see a significant number of sacred trees destroyed.

Last year, the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation – the registered Aboriginal party which represents a number of Aboriginal groups in the area, including the Djab Wurrung people – struck a partial agreement with the state government, which saw the road redesigned to protect 15 trees.

Major Road Projects Victoria claim the tree felled yesterday wasn’t the directions tree identified by the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation, but instead an ordinary fiddleback tree.

Protestors at the site dispute this.

“We’ve got people that are very ill as a result of this devastating news,” Thorpe said. “It is like losing a loved one in your family.”

The state government has defended the highway upgrade as crucial for safety, with more than 100 crashes and 11 fatalities on the road in recent years.

“If we waited around to get 100% buy-in on this, if we waited around for an absolute consensus, then that deadly stretch of road would go unimproved, and we would see more people dying on that road,” Andrews said yesterday.

“And I’m just not prepared to settle for that.”