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Aborigines take battle over symbols to court

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CANBERRA, Australia — A group of Aborigines lodged a writ in Australia's High Court on Tuesday to try to stop the government from using what they consider sacred symbols — the kangaroo and the emu — on its coat of arms.

The move came after Aborigines celebrating the 30th anniversary of their "tent embassy" in Canberra ripped an Australian coat of arms off the former federal parliament building Sunday.

But police seized the brass crest Tuesday afternoon in a raid on the ramshackle embassy, which is made up of numerous tents pitched on the lawn in front of the old parliament.

Police were also continuing a 24-hour guard to stop any more attempts to take coats of arms from the white, art deco building.

A 55-year-old man will appear in court over the theft.

Robert Corowa, a spokesman for the tent embassy, said the Aboriginal community would fight to reclaim its possessions until the government agreed to negotiate a treaty incorporating their claims on Australian land.

"The kangaroo and emu represent the height of spirituality in our culture," Corowa told Reuters in an interview inside one of the embassy tents.

"We want the governor-general, who is the representative of the queen in Australia, to come here and negotiate a treaty with us. We've been ignored for 30 years and now we want action."<

The tent embassy began as a simple beach umbrella but soon grew into a small tent village, complete with ceremonial fire, in 1972 to pressure for land rights two centuries after British colonisation.

It was repeatedly torn down by police in violent clashes and faded away by 1975. But in 1992 it was revived to draw attention to the sovereignty claims of Australia's 400,000 indigenous people in its population of 19.3 million.

The latest fracas over the coat of arms has again sparked confrontation between police and Aborigines, with protesters accusing police of using excessive force in Tuesday's raid.

But chief police officer of the Australian Capital Territory, John Murray, denied force was used and dismissed claims that batons and plain clothed police were used in the operation.

The protesters have vowed to proceed with their legal action.

The writ is seeking an injunction against using the emu and kangaroo on the coat of arms on several grounds, including that the animals were Aboriginal objects and written permission was needed to use their images and names under copyright laws.

But the writ also called for a panel of independent, international judges to adjudicate the matter, arguing the High Court sitting under the coat of arms had a conflict of interest.

Corowa said Aborigines, who remain the most disadvantaged group in Australia in terms of wealth, health and education, had chosen to take legal action first over the coat of arms.

But he said the protesters also wanted companies, sports clubs and other organisations using the kangaroo and emu in their names or logos to seek permission to use them or remove them.

He cited the Kangaroos Australian Football League club.

"I'll seek an injunction on the Kangaroos if they continue to fraudulently use the name of the kangaroo," he said.