A decision to charge a policeman over an Aboriginal prisoner's death was hailed yesterday as one of the most significant events in the history of indigenous relations in Australia.
Queensland Attorney General Kerry Shine announced on Friday he would bring charges against Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley over the death in custody of Cameron Doomadgee on Palm Island in November 2004.
Queensland's Director of Public Prosecutions, Leanne Clare, sparked widespread protests last year when she ruled there was there was not enough evidence to warrant charges, despite a coroner finding the policeman was responsible for the death of Doomadgee -- also known as Mulrunji.
Public outrage prompted an independent review by Sir Laurence Street, the former chief justice of New South Wales, which has found enough evidence to charge Hurley with manslaughter.
"It is one of the most important days in the 219 years [of history] in regards to justice for the indigenous people," Townsville Member in the Queensland parliament Mike Reynolds told public radio.
Reynolds said many people on Palm Island, where an Aboriginal settlement was established in 1918, said they felt vindicated by the decision to have the case heard before a court.
The small island, which has a population of about 2,000, lies about 65km northeast of Townsville, off Australia's east coast.
Australia's indigenous affairs minister, Mal Brough, welcomed the development but said the time for public debate was over.
Australian Greens leader Bob Brown said the decision would "return a sense of justice" to all Australians.
The Palm Island community celebrated through the night and Doomadgee's friends said they were looking forward to having their day in court.
"I urge every indigenous people around Australia to get together on the big day," said David Bulsey, a friend of the Doomadgee family.
However, Queensland police warned of possible action, with the police union describing officers as "furious" at what they called "political interference" over the case.
"Police right across the state are incensed at this political interference and over the next few days we'll consult with them about what actions they will like to take," union vice-president Denis Fitzpatrick said.
Queensland Premier Peter Beattie rejected calls from Aboriginal leaders for Clare's resignation, saying there was no reason for her to "take decisions in relation to her future -- she can continue in the job."
Andrew Boe, the Doomadgee family lawyer, described the report and the government's reaction as a "landmark" decision.
"This is the first time that a criminal charge has followed a death in custody in Australia's history," he said.