Citing COVID-19, Australian court bans George Floyd protests in Sydney

A close up photograph of a woman wearing a white protective face mask with the words, "I can't breathe" written on it.

Australian authorities have banned protests in Syndey and sought to block protests elsewhere around the country set to take place over the weekend inspired by the death of a black American man George Floyd, saying large gatherings risk new coronavirus infections.

Around 50,000 Australians had been expected at nationwide events on Saturday as anger over Floyd's death in Minneapolis — where a white policeman knelt on his neck — also focuses attention on mistreatment of indigenous Australians.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said people had the right to express themselves, but should the COVID-19 disease spread at protests, it would be impossible to trace all participants.

"Any mass gathering at this time is a lottery with peoples' lives," he told reporters in Melbourne.

Authorities in Australia's most populous state of New South Wales (NSW) secured a Supreme Court injunction to prevent the largest rally planned for Sydney.  

Judge Desmond Fagan said a gathering of thousands was "an unreasonable proposition" given state directives for no more than 10 people to gather.

"It is self-evident that the social distancing measures ... have been the key element in minimizing the spread of this disease," he said, adding that the right to free expression was being "deferred" until a safer time.

Some protesters, however, said they would carry on.

"I never lose my decision to fight for what is true," rally organizer Raul Bassi said after the court decision.

Australia has avoided the high infections and casualties of other nations, with only 102 deaths, because of border closures and social distancing since March.

NSW police had originally approved the Sydney protest, on the understanding there would be fewer than 500 participants, but far more had been planning to attend.

"The New South Wales government would never, ever give the green light to thousands of people flagrantly disregarding the health orders," NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters.

In Victoria state, where gatherings of more than 20 people are banned, police threatened fines for protest organisers and people breaking social distancing rules. Queensland and Western Australia states also urged people not to attend rallies.

"Let's find a better way and another way to express these sentiments," urged Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

"Let's exercise our liberties responsibly."

By Colin Packham and Byron Kaye/Reuters

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.