Peaceful protest punishments 'outrageous'

Peaceful environmental protesters are being slogged with outrageous punishments in Australia as the federal government continues to exacerbate the climate crisis, advocates say.

In a scathing assessment of Australia, Human Rights Watch condemned sentences doled out to environmental activists, pointing to NSW where authorities were "disproportionately punishing climate protesters in violation of their rights to peacefully protest".

Magistrates in the state were imposing harsh and excessive penalties and bail conditions on climate protesters, the organisation said.

One of them, Deanna "Violet" Maree Coco was handed a 15-month jail sentence for her role in a protest that disrupted Sydney peak-hour traffic, but she was later released on bail pending an appeal.

Meanwhile, in Victoria and Tasmania, new laws also invoked severe penalties for non-violent protests.

While the Albanese government had committed to more ambitious greenhouse gas emissions targets, its continued support for expanding fossil fuel industries contributed to the climate crisis and undermined peoples' right to a healthy environment, Human Rights Watch said.

The government failed to meet its obligations under international law to prevent foreseeable harm caused by climate change.

"The Australian government should recognise that its credibility to advance democracy and human rights in the region means urgently addressing its own deficiencies," senior researcher Sophie McNeill said.

"The authorities are jailing children under 14, punishing peaceful environmental protesters with outrageous sentences, and mistreating Indigenous people in prison and asylum seekers."

The United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture suspended a planned visit to Australia in October because of "obstructions" it ran into trying to visit several detention facilities and access documents, Human Rights Watch's World Report 2023 said.

The report also pointed to the Western Australian state government initially refusing to install air conditioning in cells at Roebourne Regional Prison, despite temperatures reaching 50C.

Nine in 10 prisoners there were First Nations people, the organisation said.

Indigenous people accounted for at least 17 deaths in custody in Australia in 2022, and an inquest into the 2020 death of Indigenous woman Veronica Nelson found she screamed for help for hours before she was found dead in her cell.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese turning back a boat of asylum seekers shortly after the May election signalled the government's intention to stick with the turn-back policy, the organisation said.

The report conceded Mr Albanese's election led to some improvements in human rights in Australia.

It noted how tennis player Novak Djokovic's detention in a Melbourne hotel brought attention to the plight of asylum seekers and refugees being held there, and they were ultimately released.