11 September, 2010

Loggers' assault a 'rampage'

Andrew Darby
The Age, September 11, 2010

THREE forest workers have been convicted of a violent assault that marked a low point in Tasmania's old growth logging dispute.

The assault on blockaders in the contentious Upper Florentine Valley made global internet viewing when it was captured by a hidden camera. A Hobart magistrate yesterday described the assault, using a sledgehammer and steel-capped boots, as akin to a rampage.

Peter Barker, counsel for logging contractor Rodney Howells, 51, said Howells ''lost it'' when he found a disabled car blockading the road into a Florentine Valley logging coupe, with two protesters inside.

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A video of the incident, shot from a concealed position by another protester, was described by magistrate Olivia McTaggart as confronting in its violence.

Howells beat the car with a sledgehammer, smashing its windows, as he demanded the protesters inside get out of his way. When Nishant Datt, 22, and Miranda Gibson, 27, got out of the car Jeremy Eizell, 36, grabbed Datt and threw him to the ground, and Terrence Pearce, 34, kicked him to the head. Both men worked for Howells.

Ms McTaggart said the protest was carefully staged to stop workers proceeding with their legitimate activities, and she accepted that Howells was very remorseful.

But she said they were not entitled to deliver their remedy, which was a frightening experience for the protesters. Convictions were recorded on assault charges for all three, and each was ordered to carry out 70 hours of community service.

The court heard that Howells was the victim of an unsolved 2002 sabotage, when five of his machines, worth up to $3 million, were wrecked and burnt in a logging coupe.

Mr Barker said Howells and his work crew had been repeatedly prevented by environmentalists from carrying out their job under contract to timber company Gunns before the October 21, 2008, assault.

''He and other contractors have become pawns in a dispute between environmentalists and the timber industry,'' he said.

A spokeswoman for the protest group, Still Wild Still Threatened, Ula Majewski, said it was time to move on from the case.

''This was really symptomatic of the conflict that has dogged Tasmanian forests for decades,'' Ms Majewski said. ''We are now on the threshold of agreement on a sustainable industry that preserves our truly beautiful wild forests.''

The court decision came just a day after Gunns's chief executive, Greg L'Estrange, declared loggers had lost the public battle for the right to log native forests.

''We will find joint solutions to age-old conflicts and move beyond [to] a real, sustainable forest industry,'' Mr L'Estrange told a trade conference in Melbourne.


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