Parliament fire ‘cleansing ceremony’: court

The fire destroyed the entrance to Old Parliament House. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Gary Ramage

A man accused of being a ringleader of the group that set fire to Old Parliament House has choked back tears as he urged a jury to set aside the case against him.

Bruce Shillingsworth Jr represented himself in the two-day trial in the ACT Supreme Court against charges of aiding and abetting arson and damaging Commonwealth property.

Donning a traditional purple headdress and a kangaroo pelt inscribed with a declaration he said was signed by “his people”, Mr Shillingsworth argued the events of the day were simply a cultural ceremony.

“What we wanted to do was go in there and smoke that place out,” he said on Friday.

Bruce Shillingsworth argued the jury should set aside his charges. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

“Smoking ceremony is a cleansing process. It‘s to cleanse out the bad spirits. Trust me, there are a lot of bad spirits in that place. That’s where they made those decisions to kill my people.”

The prosecution alleged Mr Shillingsworth helped a second man, Nicholas Reed, by co-ordinating protesters as he carried hot coals to the building’s doors.

He is also accused of directing the concealment of CCTV cameras. Mr Shillingsworth has pleaded not guilty.

Mr Reed is also standing trial for the incident, charged with arson. He has pleaded not guilty.

Both men are accused of being ringleaders of the group that had been camping near the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and damaged Old Parliament House on December 30, 2021.

Mr Shillingsworth’s emotive address led several of his supporters to break down in the courtroom. Clutching their heads in their hands, they cried as he spoke about the symbolism of Old Parliament House for First Nations people.

One member of the jury also appeared moved by the speech and nodded her head during his closing submission.

Damage caused by the fire at Old Parliament House. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Gary Ramage

“All they needed to do was open those doors up to have a conversation about how we can change the future,” he said.

He questioned why he and Mr Reed were being “prosecuted for a door” while he said mining companies were destroying sacred Indigenous sites.

“Think about it. You talk about injustices. You talk about what’s fair. What is right? Me and my brother shouldn’t be sitting here today,” Mr Shillingsworth said.

The prosecution alleged the day before the incident Mr Shillingsworth encouraged members to “make a stand” and “come here and let’s knock this door down”.

Mr Shillingsworth has pleaded not guilty. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

On Thursday, Crown prosecutor Soraya Saikal-Skea tendered more than an hour of CCTV footage from the day of the incident.

She said the fire had been “deliberately lit” and up until that point the protest had been largely peaceful.

Mr Shillingsworth argued the evidence presented by the prosecution did not prove the allegation he directed protesters to burn down the door of Old Parliament House or conceal cameras.

In the CCTV footage, a man the prosecution alleged to be Mr Reed takes supplies for a smoking ceremony from a silver Mercedes before building a fire.

The man later puts coals onto a piece of wood and carries it up the stairs. The prosecution alleges he then placed it out the front of the door, where it caught fire.

Nicholas Reed has also pleaded not guilty. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Gary Ramage

Mr Reed’s barrister James Sabharwal told the jury that identification was the main point of contention in the case.

He asked the jury to consider whether they could identify his client based on a couple of CCTV videos shown to the court.

Supreme Court Justice David Mossop told the jury to put any sympathy or hostile views they had towards the two men, and protesters more generally, out of their mind.

“You should set aside your own political views or views you may have on political protests,” he said.

The jury has now retired to consider its verdict.