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Monday, March 1, 1999 Published at 14:47 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

'Stolen Generation' seek justice

Defendants say they've been deprived of spiritual heritage

A landmark trial has opened in Australia of two Aborigines, who are suing the government for being separated from their parents, and brought up as white children.

Lorna Cubillo and Peter Gunner, members of Australia's so-called "stolen generation", are claiming compensation and punitive damages for what their lawyers describe as life-long psychological trauma and mental distress.

The hearing could be a test case for thousands of Aborigines who survived official attempts to assimilate them into white society by putting them into institutions and church missions.

Denied language and culture

Mr Jack Rush, a lawyer for the two Aborigines, told Darwin's federal court that his clients were subjected to a cruelty unsurpassed in recent Australian history.

The court heard how Ms Cubillo, now aged 60, remembered being taken from her mother at the age of seven and put into a truck lined with barbed wire, along with babies just a few months old, and carried hundreds of kilometres away.

In her statement to the court, Ms Cubillo said she was regularly flogged with a leather strap for speaking her traditional language and locked up at night.

She also said she was beaten so severely for swimming on a Sunday that her face still carries scars.

Peter Gunner, who is 51, was taken from his home near Alice Springs at the age of eight, and did not see his mother for another 30 years.

At the time of separation he did not speak English, and said he thought he would be killed.

'Form of genocide'

In 1997, an Australian Human Rights Commission report denounced the policy of forced separation and assimilation as a form of "genocide", and concluded that surviving victims should be compensated.

"What the government did was genocide, in that it tried to wipe us out because of the colour of our skin," said Aborigine Barbara Cummings, a spokeswoman for the Northern Territory Aborigines seeking compensation.

Many of the estimated 30,000 surviving victims say they were beaten, sexually abused or treated as slaves.

PM denies blame

The Prime Minister, John Howard, has expressed personal regret about the atrocities of previous governments, but has ruled out paying compensation.

The present generation, he says, cannot be held responsible for what happened in the past.

The policy began in the 1880s, and was continued for almost a century before being finally abandoned in the late 1960s.

Last year another Aborigine lost a High Court of Australia case arguing that the separation laws were unconstitutional.

Ms Cubillo and Mr Gunner are not arguing that the policy was wrong or genocidal, but that that government failed in its "duty of care" towards wards of the state.

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