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A man police say is the leader of the Australian nationalist socialist movement has been granted bail as he awaits trial on allegations he attacked and robbed a group of hikers in regional Victoria.
Police allege Thomas Sewell was one of 15 neo-Nazis who surrounded a car with three hikers inside, and kicked and punched the vehicle at the Cathedral Range State Park, north-east of Melbourne, on May 8.
Police say the men, dressed in black T-shirts emblazoned with a white Celtic cross and some of them wearing balaclavas, ran to the car after their group saw a hiker filming them with a mobile phone.
Mr Sewell is accused of punching and smashing a car window. Police allege the neo-Nazis demanded the hikers hand over their phones before they were allowed to drive away.
Mr Sewell, 28, was this week described in the County Court by a detective as a believer in a “neo-Nazi ideology” who had previously described himself as a “political soldier for the white race” and claimed that “Adolf Hitler is my leader”. Police believe he is prepared to use violence to advance his ideological beliefs.
The former soldier has pleaded not guilty to charges including armed robbery, violent disorder, affray, criminal damage and assault, and was granted bail on Thursday despite police concerns he could have followers contact the hikers and that his rhetoric and alleged criminal conduct has escalated this year.
Detective Acting Sergeant Michael Taylor, of Victoria Police’s counter-terrorism unit, said on Monday investigators were concerned Mr Sewell had a large online following and that if granted bail, he could have the hikers targeted before the trial. Some of Mr Sewell’s supporters watched this week’s online hearings.
But on Thursday, judge Peter Lauritsen granted bail after he found Mr Sewell’s application met the criteria for exceptional circumstances, as the accused man had already spent six months on remand and was unlikely to face trial until 2023 at the earliest. The impact of COVID-19 has caused delays through Victoria’s courts.
Judge Lauritsen was also not satisfied Mr Sewell posed an unacceptable risk of offending and endangering the public if granted bail, as his father, Anthony, had offered him a place to stay and a $10,000 surety. Anthony Sewell on Monday told the court he was “a person who plays the game by the rules” and would contact police if his son breached his bail conditions.
Police say the neo-Nazis ran to the car when one saw a hiker filming them and yelled “Antifa”, but there is no suggestion the hikers were connected to the left-wing anti-fascist movement.
Detective Acting Sergeant Taylor said Mr Sewell’s blood and fingerprints were found on the hikers’ car and that when arrested a week later, the accused man had an injury on the inside of his wrist.
But defence counsel James McQuillan submitted on Monday there were “a number of hypotheses” on how Mr Sewell might have injured his hand, and that the accused was prepared to give an account at trial.
Mr McQuillan said while Mr Sewell was at the park, it was up to prosecutors to prove his involvement in an armed robbery, as none of the hikers had identified him. It was disputed what role, if any, he played among the 15 to 20 “men in black”, the barrister said.
“You don’t have anyone who can identify him, do you?” he asked Detective Acting Sergeant Taylor.
The detective replied: “That’s correct.”
Mr McQuillan described the prosecution case as weak, but prosecutor Thomas Crouch said the forensic evidence on the car meant the case was strong on some charges.
Mr Crouch argued the alleged offending came while Mr Sewell was on bail over an allegation that on March 1 he assaulted a security guard at the Channel Nine building in Melbourne – which also houses The Age offices – before Nine’s A Current Affair broadcast a report about his group.
Mr McQuillan said Mr Sewell would probably argue he was defending another person from the security guard.
Police allege Jacob Hersant is also a leader in Australia’s neo-Nazi movement and was involved in both incidents. Mr Hersant, 22, has also pleaded not guilty to a number of charges over the Cathedral Ranges incident and is already on bail as he awaits trial.
Mr Sewell will face a directions hearing in the County Court in April but no trial date has been set. His successful bail application came after he was refused bail by a magistrate in June.
Judge Lauritsen ordered Mr Sewell report to police three times a week as a condition of bail.
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