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Tuesday, August 10, 1999 Published at 13:56 GMT 14:56 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Aborigines launch landmark case

Their ordeal has been described as a form of genocide

Two Australian aborigines have launched a landmark test case against Australia's federal government after being forcibly removed from their parents more than 40 years ago.

The BBC's Red Harrison: "It was an attempt to breed out blackness"
Lorna Cubillo and Peter Gunner were both eight years old when the authorities took them away from their parents in 1945 and 1956 respectively, to be assimilated into institutions and church missions and raised within a white family.

They are two of 30,000 people who make up the so-called stolen generation - people who lost their childhood to Australia's policy of eliminating blackness which began in the 1880s and continued for just under a century.

Lawyer Michael Schaefer: "There will be a lot of evidence called"
Lorna Cubillo, 60, remembers being taken away and carried hundreds of miles in a lorry lined with barbed wire.

Fifty-one-year-old Peter Gunner did not see his mother for 30 years after their separation. At the time, he did not speak English and thought he would be killed.

'Form of genocide'

Now they are claiming compensation and punitive damages in a court in Darwin for mental and emotional distress.

Their assimilation into white families has been described by the Australian Human Rights Commission (Heroc) as a form of genocide.

[ image:  ]
They will argue that the government failed in its duty of care towards wards of the state.

Their legal suit in a court in Darwin is a test case for the 700 others who want to sue the government, according to their lawyer Michael Schaefer. He says he expects a tough fight from the government.

Mr Schaefer told the BBC that he will draw on extensive medical and anthropological evidence, as well as hundreds of aborigines, to support their case.

The government of conservative federal Prime Minister John Howard has repeatedly denied any responsibility, saying that the present generation should not have to make amends for past deeds.

He offered a personal apology earlier this year but was advised by the attorney-general's office not to give a national one amid fears it would open the floodgates to hundreds of lawsuits.

Harrowing testimonies

In May, Judge Maurice O'Loughlin ruled that Ms Cubillo and Mr Gunner had a case which should be heard by the nation.

[ image: John Howard refused compensation]
John Howard refused compensation
Their case follows a failed campaign in the High Court, known as the Kruger case, which sought to prove that a law allowing mixed-descent children in the Northern Territory to be removed from their biological mothers was unconstitutional.

Mr Shaefer has suggested that the government, which has already spent $3.5m to fight the case, set up a tribunal to deal with future cases if his clients win theirs.

The trial, which could last for months, is expected to reveal harrowing testimonies from the two claimants.

In her statement during a preliminary hearing in May, 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.

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

The hearings are expected to travel to Tennant Creek, Alice Springs and Melbourne.

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Internet Links

Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation

Australian Government

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Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission

Heroc's report on the stolen children

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