A magistrate has thrown out “inappropriate” bail conditions imposed on a 23-year-old student activist who was the subject of a midnight arrest by police following a protest outside the Reserve Bank in Sydney last month.
In Downing Centre local court on Wednesday, lawyers for Cherish Kuehlmann, a student at the University of NSW charged with a single count of trespass after a 30-person protest in Sydney’s CBD last month, successfully argued for the removal of strict bail conditions preventing her from being within 2km of Sydney’s Town Hall.
The magistrate, Clare Farnan, told the court she “didn’t understand” why NSW police had imposed bail given Kuehlmann had no prior convictions and was charged with an offence that carried a maximum fine of $5,500.
She dismissed the police argument that removing the restriction would allow Kuehlmann to attend a National Union of Students protest planned for this week, saying that was her “democratic right”.
“What she chooses to do surely is up to her,” Farnan said. “The police want me to maintain bail conditions of a 2km city radius so she can’t attend protests … that’s essentially your submission.”
The police prosecutor said the bail conditions were imposed due to an “unwillingness” shown by Kuehlmann to comply with public orders.
He raised concern over a National Union Student protest planned for Friday, warning that Kuehlmann “may engage in similar events” and commit similar offences.
“She does not respect private property,” he told the court. “It will permit her to attend rallies … The incident was an unlawful protest.”
The magistrate said the community had a lawful right to protest in the CBD, questioning the motivation of police to impose such restrictive conditions.
Sidnie Sarang, the lawyer representing Kuehlmann, asked the court for a complete deletion of the “very onerous condition” that had restricted her from fulfilling her duties with the student union.
“What we are looking at here is a 23-year-old UNSW student with no criminal offences before today,” she said. “Not only does it hamper her work, it hampers her entire livelihood.
“Part of her job description is to liaise with different stakeholders and organise protests and rallies, and represent the interests of students.”
Sarang said Kuehlmann had intended to speak the previous Friday at a call-to-action protest that had been officially authorised but she wasn’t able to attend due to her bail restrictions.
“The purpose of bail conditions isn’t to prevent one from attending a protest, it’s to prevent a bail concern,” she said. “This is the first time she’s been charged.
“I’m worried to think what else she’ll miss out on this year until she’s provided with a hearing date.”
Sarang said there was a “very real question” about the lawfulness of Kuehlmann’s arrest, which took place at her home after she was apprehended and cautioned by the police at the Royal Bank of Australia.
Police allege Kuehlmann and others ran towards the front door of the RBA when a security guard blocked them and shouted “that they were trespassing”. They allege Kuehlmann and other protesters “continued to force entry” but “kept getting pushed back”.
Farnan said given the “unblemished” record of the defendant, the imposition of bail conditions for a fine-only offence should only occur in “rare” circumstances.
“There’s nothing in these facts to suggest anyone involved in these protests was being in any way violent,” she told the court. “Kuehlmann intends to continue to engage in activism around causes which she regards as important – that is her democratic right as long as she doesn’t do so unlawfully.
“In my view the bail which was imposed by police should be dispensed with.”
Activists with the National Union of Students gathered outside the court on Wednesday morning calling for the charges to be dropped.
Among them was Maddie Clark, the University of Sydney environment officer who has been suspended for a protest against former prime minister Malcom Turnbull at the university last year.
She urged the state government to reverse laws passed after a series of climate protests that introduced tough new penalties for activists who blocked roads, bridges and tunnels.
Kuehlmann will plead not guilty at her sentencing hearing on 25 October.
Appearing outside the court, Kuehlmann said the bail conditions impacted her right to lawfully protest as well as her personal life.
“I was pretty outraged by it, to be honest,” she said. “Today was a victory … we should have the right to protest.
“We definitely have a sense of caution … but we’re not going to be intimidated.”