Deanna Coco, a climate protester, was sentenced to 15 months in prison after she obstructed a lane of traffic on Sydney Harbor Bridge, Australia in April last year.
“Violet” Coco’s sentencing caused public uproar in Australia, with advocates arguing that it was disproportionate and reflective of the government’s crackdown on protests.
However, a judge overturned her sentence on Wednesday, citing false information provided by the police.
Last year, a group of four including Coco organized a protest to raise awareness about the climate emergency in Australia. She and others had parked a hired truck on one lane of the bridge, before climbing on top and lighting a flare to draw attention.
She was charged under New South Wales (NSW) laws which introduced harsher penalties for protests on critical infrastructure – such as roads, rail lines, tunnels and bridges. Similar laws have been introduced in other states too.
NSW Police argued the protest had caused a massive inconvenience and had ensnared paramedics en route to an emergency – a claim they have since withdrawn. Coco pleaded guilty to breaching traffic laws, lighting a flare and disobeying police orders to move on.
When sentencing her in December, Magistrate Allison Hawkins said the 31-year-old let the “entire city suffer” with her “selfish emotional actions”, and repeatedly cited the claim – still tendered as fact by police then – that the protest had blocked an ambulance. She also denied Coco bail pending her appeal – a decision reversed after the activist spent almost two weeks in prison.
When deciding her appeal, Judge Mark Williams questioned police assertions on the scale of the disruption and rejected suggestions Coco was a “danger to the community”.
He ruled that she had been imprisoned on a “false factual basis”, setting aside the sentence and instead imposing a 12-month good behaviour bond. Coco has now indicated she will seek compensation from NSW Police.
Judge Williams also reduced the sentence of Alan Russell Glover – who had participated in the protest with Coco. The case has drawn condemnation from the UN’s special rapporteur on peaceful assembly who said he was “alarmed” by Coco’s sentence. “Peaceful protesters should never be criminalised or imprisoned,” Clément Voule said in December.
The NSW state government has defended the legislation as necessary to preserve people’s “way of life”.