By Sahar Adatia and Jimmy Singh.
War memorials are considered some of Australia’s most sacred places.
Almost every community in Australia has a war memorial, and across the nation, these historical monuments serve as a testament to the service, sacrifice and loss from a century of service.
Indeed, they are historic touchstones of the past, and with most Australian soldiers buried overseas or their bodies lost during the wars they served in, such memorials have also come to operate as peaceful places of contemplation, where families and the wider community can mourn.
While war memorials are so respected by citizens at large, almost unexpectedly, many of these sites face the significant problem of damage and vandalism.
This problem is particularly felt by community members who work tremendously hard to preserve and fiercely protect such memorials so their legacies can live on.
This week saw another such case surface in which a war memorial was struck by vandals.
Specifically, five World War II military servicemen’s graves were destroyed at Nowra Cemetery on the South Coast of NSW.
Vandals Smash Marble Headstones of Five Military Graves at Nowra Cemetery
It is reported that on 12 September 2019, five marble headstones, which were in the military section at Nowra Cemetery, were discovered heaved from the ground and shattered by senseless vandals.
The gravesites belonged to veterans who fought in World War II and the fragile marble of their headstones were left suffering substantial damage.
Well-known local Navy veteran, Fred Campbell, said the damage appeared to be carried out by an instrument of some kind.
He also expressed the area’s former servicemen were devastated by the act.
“They haven’t just kicked it, they have used something bigger,” Mr Campbell said.
“I would really like someone to come forward and say ‘yep, I did this,’ and put their hand up – or someone who knows about it.
“People have got to be held accountable for this sort of thing.”
According to Mr Campbell, some of the graves were damaged beyond repair.
Local Veteran Shattered and Dumbfounded by Blatant Vandalism
Meanwhile, another renowned local veteran, Rick Meehan, who along with his 33-year-old son Luke have maintained the war graves for the Commonwealth War Graves for the past five years, said he was shattered and dumbfounded by the unashamed vandalism.
“I’ve been looking after this area for about five years, looking after these Diggers who stay here and why someone would want to vandalise it, destroy what they [the veterans] have done for their country is beyond me,” Mr Meehan said.
“I can’t understand why someone would want to do this.”
According to Mr Meehan, this is the second time in three years the cemetery, which is part of the Nowra General Cemetery, has fallen victim to such mindless vandalism.
A similar sentiment was shared by officer in charge at Nowra Police Station, Inspector Ray Stynes, who described the vandalism as “despicable”.
“It is an out and out show of disrespect to the war veterans that are laid in that area,” Inspector Stynes said.
“It’s just unfathomable.
“This is just outright disrespect. They [the offenders] obviously don’t understand what these people gave up for us to be able to live the way we do today.”
Department of Veterans Affairs Vows to Repair Sites as Quickly as Possible
The Department of Veterans Affairs has since ensured the repairs and replacements necessary to the site will be carried out as quickly as possible.
This will be completed as a priority by Office of Australian War Graves staff, and will be at no cost to the families of the servicemen.
Meanwhile, Shoalhaven City Council is looking into CCTV and security systems, alongside the Office of Australian War Graves to assist in assessing and repairing the damage.
The below is an outline on the law and penalties for damaging protected places in NSW. For further details, please call out 24/7 hotline on (02) 8606 2218 to discuss this further in a free consultation with a criminal lawyer in Sydney who appear across all courts.
What Does it Mean to Damage or Desecrate a Protected Place in NSW?
In NSW, a “protected place” is defined as a shrine, monument or statue located in a public place, and (without limitation) includes a war memorial or an interment site.
A “war memorial” is understood to mean as a war memorial located in a public place.
In Sydney, examples of protected areas include the Martin Place Cenotaph, the sculptures of Anzac Memorial Hyde Park and the statue of Queen Victoria that is found at the Queen Victoria Building on George Street in Town Hall.
If a person breaks, vandalises, damages, urinates on, or in some other way defiles a public monument, they can be charged with the offence of damaging or desecrating a protected place.
‘Damage’ includes temporary functional derangement, physical harm or impairment to value or usefulness, causing something to become imperfect or inoperative or altering the physical integrity of property.
The penalty for damaging property in NSW is outlined in section 195 Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) which is a separate crime to damaging a protected place in NSW.
In NSW, the penalty for damaging or desecrating a protected place is outlined in section 8 Summary Offences Act 1988 (NSW).
There is a max penalty of $4,400 that a Court can impose if a person is guilty of wilfully damaging or defacing a protected place (section 8(2) Summary Offences Act 1988 (NSW)).
There is a max penalty of $2,200 that a Court can impose if a person is guilty of committing a nuisance or an offensive or indecent act in or on a war memorial or interment site (section 8(3) Summary Offences Act 1988 (NSW)).
In addition to the above penalties, a court can, instead of sentencing an offender with the above fines, impose a community correction order (CRO) with standard conditions in addition to community service work.
There is no imprisonment penalty for these offences in NSW, although it does carry a criminal conviction/record, you will not receive a conviction if the court is convinced enough to sentence an offender under a section 10 non-conviction penalty even after he/she pleads guilty.