Violet Coco: NSW minister voted into law used to jail her nephew for 15 months for climate protests

Alister Henskens defends role in passing legislation, says 'no one is above the law'

A climate activist who was sentenced to 15 months in prison for the Sydney Harbor Bridge protests is the nephew of a senior minister in the New South Wales Coalition government.

Deanna "Violet" Coco, who faces a minimum of eight months in prison for the April protests in which the 32-year-old parked her truck and stood holding a flaming flare on a bridge, is the niece of Alister Henskens, minister for skills and training and ally of the prime minister's faction, Dominic Perrottet.

Earlier this year Henskens voted in favor of legislation that dramatically increased penalties for protests blocking roads, bridges or tunnels, after a spate of climate protests blocked traffic in Sydney.

The law – heavily criticized by human rights groups, trade unions, environmental activists and legal groups at the time – imposed larger fines and prison terms of up to two years for convicted protesters.

But despite family ties, Henskens on Tuesday defended his role in passing the controversial law, saying that "no one is above the law".

“We are all equal before the law and individuals must be held accountable for their actions. It is up to our independent justice system to determine the appropriate course of action in any individual case,” said Henskens

“I am a firm believer in the right to free speech, including in legitimate forms of peaceful protest.

"NSW is one of the freest places in the world to express a point of view with a very clear set of laws that I fully support."

Although the government – and the opposition Labor Party – support the law, Coco's arrest and prison sentence have sparked renewed protests over the law. After his sentence on Friday, a senior UN official said he was "worried" by it.

In a statement published on Tuesday and written before his sentencing - Coco said he started getting involved in protests to "avoid a catastrophic future" from climate change.

"Given the urgency of the situation, I felt compelled to do what would be most effective in bringing about political change," he wrote.

“History has shown that in times of great crisis, when regular political procedures have proven incapable of upholding justice, ordinary people take a stand to bring about change through civil disobedience.”

He wrote that he "didn't want to protest". Union protests were excluded from the bill after the amendments were moved by the opposition earlier this year, but that failed to appease the movement. The head of Unions NSW, Mark Morey, told the Guardian the sentence was "grossly excessive".

"You don't have to agree with someone's politics to know that this is a grossly excessive sentence," he said.

“The justice system has enough to handle and we really don't need to add protesters like this to our overwhelmed system workload.

“There has to be a better way to prevent people from protesting like this than putting them in jail. There are people who have committed serious crimes getting less than this.”

It comes after the Guardian revealed Tuesday that NSW governor Margaret Beazley agreed to return to her office around 11pm after an event in April to sign the law, ending a mad scramble for the bill to be approved.

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