The Guardian August 15, 2001


"Terrorist attack" prompts apology

Ryan Heath*

Police armed with machine guns from Tactical Response Squad closed off 
several blocks of the North Sydney business district on June 8, responding 
to reports that a group of armed terrorists had taken children and staff 
hostage in the Colombian Consulate. Here's what really happened...

9.30 am: A group of 16 protesters, including myself and an Australian 
Associated Press journalist, entered the Colombian consulate on the 12th 
floor of a North Sydney office block.

We informed them that we wanted to speak to the representatives of the 
Colombian President in relation to the assassinations of 200 trade union 
activists by right-wing government death squads in Colombia in just 18 
months.

After about 30 seconds of discussion the staff agreed to let us use their 
phones and fax and assisted us in contacting the right people by providing 
Colombian phone directories and so on. 

The atmosphere in the consulate in that time must be made clear: visitors 
in the office were still having their visas processed by consulate staff; 
children continued to play with toys in the reception area; a man delivered 
stationery to the office; even though, according to the police, the "siege" 
was already under way.

10.30am: The protest seemed to be wrapping up so the AAP journalist and 
myself headed out to leave  only to find that the lifts had been locked 
and the building evacuated.

We called AAP who told us the surrounding blocks had been cordoned off and 
the police were conducting a press conference about the "terrorist attack".

We decided that leaving the building might lead to us being shot so we 
stayed put and relayed the news to those still in the consulate office.

10.45am: The phones and fax in the office were cut off but we still had two 
mobile phones. There were only four English speakers out of the 19 people 
present, and police had not made contact.

12pm: Te called the media, asking them to get the police to tell us what 
was happening. In doing this we emphasised: the staff were not being held 
against their will  they were too scared to leave just like us; we had no 
weapons; and we wanted to leave peacefully.

1.15pm: We told the police we were going to leave, which we decided to do 
in small groups to protect ourselves. The Police lied to the media and said 
14 of the 16 refuse to leave. 

1.20pm: As each small group attempts to leave by the fire escape, they were 
confronted by three or four police pointing huge machine guns in their 
faces. We were detained and had our bodies and possessions searched. 

They wouldn't inform us if we had been arrested, or what charges had been 
laid against us.

1.30 pm: Locked up at North Sydney Police station, we were all separated 
and interviewed Federal Police. Federal immigration authorities interview 
all the non-English speaking detainees. One man  and Australian resident 
 was detained as an illegal immigrant because he had no ID.

Most of the police officers assigned to guard each of us think the whole 
thing is a joke, and go get us some McDonalds because they felt sorry for 
us. No-one had eaten all day.

5.15 pm: 14 of the 16 protesters are gathered up to the staff tea room for 
a joint address by the NSW and Federal Police who go to great lengths to 
apologise to us. 

Some of the specific phrases used were: "We made a mistake  we 
acknowledge you had no weapons"; "You are free to go, we are sorry this has 
happened"; "We recognise this was a peaceful protest".

Later that night Commissioner Peter Ryan exploits the situation as a 
publicity opportunity for the NSW Police. He lies and says the police did 
not apologise and that the police did not over-react. 

Ultimately, we found out that the "weapon" which provoked Australia's 
largest "anti-terrorist" operation since the Hilton bombing in 1978, was 
the NUS flag I took to the protest.

* Ryan Heath is NSW President of the National Union of Students.

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