SYDNEY — Johnno, a 15-year-old Aboriginal boy, steals a few pencils and some paint. The magistrate has no option but to send him to prison for four weeks. After three weeks behind bars, Johnno hangs himself.

Johnno’s death, the latest in a long line of suicides by young blacks, has sparked local and international protests over the injustice Aborigines continue to endure in Australia. The uproar coincided with a visit here this week by the world’s delegated righter of wrongs, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Ever the diplomat, Annan declined to upset his host, Prime Minister John Howard, by publicly berating Australia for its history of neglect of its native people. Privately, he deplored the state-imposed racism. Also privately, he learned that Johnno’s death is far from rare in Australia’s Deep North.

Christmas Day was a hungry time for three Aboriginal men on the Gulf of Carpentaria island of Groote Eylandt. They broke into the storeroom of a mining company and stole biscuits and soft drinks. Last week, they were sentenced to jail terms of from 90 days to one year. The Northern Territory government will spend $135,000 to detain these men, whose way of life is basically nomadic — some 5,000 times the value of the goods they stole.

Down south in Perth, Western Australia, a 16-year-old boy was held overnight after being arrested for stealing 40 cents from a pay phone. He told police he needed the coins to get home. He was one of the lucky ones. The magistrate roundly criticized the police.

Aboriginal deaths in custody is one of those brushed-under-the-carpet topics that overseas visitors rarely hear about. Assuredly it will not be mentioned in the rave publicity pamphlets being churned out ahead of the Sydney Olympic Games in September.

Even Australian whites are unclear about the unbalanced ratio of blacks to whites in northern Australian jails. They probably know more about the tragic U.S. scene, with its 2-million-strong, disproportionately black prison population and Draconian sentencing laws.

Benign neglect of Aborigines has given way in Western Australia and the Northern Territory to positive punishment of lawbreakers. The change came in response to a spate of lawlessness, notably house-breaking and petty thefts, in the capital cities of Perth and Darwin. Mandatory sentencing was introduced for a broad range of burglary offenses. Criminals, including juveniles, now face mandatory jail for their third home burglary in Western Australia. Juveniles, aged 15 to 17, are mandatorily jailed for a second or third offense for 28 days in the Northern Territory.

Free-living but economically deprived, the Aborigines were the first to be caught in the net. An 18-year-old got 90 days for stealing $9 worth of petrol. Another the same age got two weeks for stealing a $2.50 cigarette lighter. Whites, too, were in for a shock. A white teacher, angry at the quality of a hot dog she bought in a Darwin fast-food restaurant, tipped water over the cash register and was sentenced to 14 days behind bars.

Crime rates, however, have not dropped dramatically. Partly because of this, public revulsion against the harsh system is threatening to mushroom into political action. Said Clare Martin, Labor opposition leader in the Darwin legislature: “The message being sent around the world is that if you want to live in an oppressive, apartheid-type regime, this is the place for you. If you want to live in a civilized, open, tolerant society, go somewhere else.”

A startled Annan arrived in the midst of the protests. He was here to thank Canberra for sending in the first troops to stop Indonesian carnage in East Timor, but at a stopover in Darwin, he encountered people with a different agenda: “Racism is the real crime,” their banners read. Annan quickly fled to Canberra, where John Howard had decreed: This is our business, not the world’s. We will solve it our way.

Kim Beazley, leader of the federal opposition Labor Party, found a new subject to deflect public scrutiny away from his fumbling over tax-law reform. Beazley announced that Annan had privately agreed to take up the Aborigines’ cause with U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson, who will, however, undoubtedly be wary of getting involved in this sectional issue.

Australia’s real embarrassment is yet to begin. Aboriginal-rights activists are determined to publicize not only mandatory-sentencing laws but the whole sorry story of injustice. The irony is that Australia, a foundation member of the United Nations, has long been highly vocal against repression overseas.

For Howard, there is no quick fix. His poll ratings are already tumbling. With his new goods-and-services tax due to take effect in July, taxpayers will be loath to sanction higher spending on Aboriginal welfare.

A white backlash is the specter all sides fear. Racial harmony in this multicultural society is regarded as everyone’s birthright. But as the mandatory-sentencing scandal shows, it takes little to start indignant whites complaining about how their tax dollars are ending up in black-settlement pubs.

Still, the critics of mandatory laws are growing more vocal. They include Gerard Brennan, a former chief justice of the High Court, Ronal Wilson, the Human Rights Commission president, two-thirds of the federal Parliament and the Law Council of Australia.

A key complication is the antagonism between those who administer federal and state laws. Western Australia is adamant it will brook no interference from Canberra. The Northern Territory, though financially and constitutionally dependent on the federal Parliament, gets just as huffy over intervention.

Stone, the man who introduced the territory’s tough laws, has resigned from the Darwin legislature to become federal president of the ruling Liberal Party. The election fight over his seat will test the strength of anti-sentencing laws protests. It is already showing how divided the major parties are over the issue.

Federal Attorney General Daryl Williams has asked both Western Australia and the Northern Territory to amend their mandatory laws. Yet Howard denies the laws warrant federal action.

As the issue approaches boiling point, newspaper critics are weighing in. Rupert Murdoch’s Australian editorialized: “The sacredness of property is being juxtaposed against the sacredness of the human person. Criminal behavior merits punishment, yet the old adage ‘Let the punishment fit the crime’ must be a guiding principle.”

Meanwhile, Aboriginal mothers march through the streets holding banners proclaiming, “Your law is killing us.” The words cry out for white recognition of Aboriginal tribal law, long ago displaced by white men’s laws.

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