The death in custody of an Aboriginal man has become symbolic of the racism still facing Australia's first people.

SYDNEY - In the bad old days in Queensland, the police force had a reputation for corruption and brutality, and many Aboriginal people were confined to remote missions.

A royal commission in the late 1980s, combined with a shift in political leadership, changed all that. Or did it?

On Monday an inquest will open on Palm Island, off the north Queensland coast, closely watched by community members and the family of a young man, Mulrunji Doomadgee.

In November 2005 Doomadgee was found dead on the floor of the island's police station. More than five years on, his relatives are still waiting for justice, and for answers.

The inquest is the latest twist in a protracted legal and political saga that has convulsed not only the island, founded as a penal colony for Aborigines, but the whole of Queensland. Along the way, the case has become a glaring symbol of the inequality and racism still facing Australia's first inhabitants.

A fit, healthy 36-year-old, Doomadgee died of massive internal injuries following a struggle with a policeman who had arrested him for drunkenness and swearing, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley. The original inquest found he had been punched in the stomach by Hurley.

However, the 201-centimetre-tall officer was acquitted of manslaughter by an all-white jury in 2007.

Now the powerful Queensland Police Union - whose members staged protest rallies after Hurley was charged and wore blue wristbands in support of their colleague - is seeking to clear his name completely.

The fresh inquest was ordered after the union's lawyers challenged the previous findings. Among those giving evidence will be Hurley, now working on the Gold Coast and about to become a father.

Doomadgee, whose only son, Eric, hanged himself in 2006, was found dead in a cell less than an hour after being arrested. He had four broken ribs and a ruptured liver: the type of injuries normally seen following a high-speed car crash.

At Hurley's trial, his defence argued that they were caused when the two men fell through the door of the police station during a scuffle. Hurley initially said he landed next to Doomadgee; at his trial, he changed his story and said he must have landed on top of him.

Now the wounds are set to be reopened by the new inquest. Palm Island's mayor, Alfred Lacey, says a verdict of accidental death would be "yet another slap in the face" for a community that has already suffered grievously. At the same time, he says, Doomadgee's sisters (his only surviving blood relatives) and his widow, Tracey Twaddle, are hoping some light may finally be cast on how and why he died.

The family is still waiting for Queensland's anti-corruption watchdog, the Crime and Misconduct Commission, to finalise its review of the police investigation of Doomadgee's death. But the CMC - set up after the 1989 Fitzgerald Inquiry found systematic corruption in the police force and state government - has indicated that its report will be scathing.

The team investigating Hurley included two of his friends, whom he picked up from the airport, and with whom he shared a meal and a beer at his home on the evening of Doomadgee's death. The cell was never declared a crime scene, and the officers had informal discussions with Hurley throughout their inquiry.

What is not contested is that after the fall Doomadgee, who had never been in trouble with police before, lay on the concrete floor of the police station, inert and unresponsive. Hurley and a fellow officer dragged him by his wrists into a cell.

Footage from a security camera, played at Hurley's trial, showed Doomadgee writhing in pain on the ground, where he bled to death.

A week later, after the community learnt the precise nature of his injuries, Palm Island exploded.

An angry crowd burnt down the police station and adjacent courthouse and police residence. Eighty mainland officers descended on the island, where they stormed houses in full combat gear and pointed guns at children. Within a few months, many of the rioters were in jail.

Despite the coroner's findings, the Director of Public Prosecutions ruled that there was not enough evidence to charge Hurley. After a public outcry, an independent judicial review was ordered, and it reached a different conclusion.

At the trial in Townsville Supreme Court, three doctors testified that Doomadgee's injuries were probably caused by being kneed in the stomach - whether deliberately or not.

The jury took less than four hours to acquit Hurley.

Locals feel justice has not been even-handed. Alfred Lacey says: "The law was very quick to move on the blackfellas after the rioting and make sure they got locked up. But we're still waiting for justice on the other side of the fence. That's the reason why Aboriginal people in this country will never have faith in the system: it doesn't treat us equally."

For Aboriginal leaders, and for the wider community, the case demonstrates that little has changed since the Fitzgerald Inquiry, set up in the dying days of Joh Bjelke-Petersen's reign. They believe it also shows that lessons have not been learnt from the Royal Commission into indigenous deaths in custody.

The commission, which reported in 1991, found that while black prisoners were not dying at a higher rate than their white counterparts, Aboriginal people were much more likely to be incarcerated in the first place.

It recommended that police should make arrests only if absolutely necessary, and suspects should be imprisoned only as a last resort.

If Hurley ignored that advice, he was not alone. Sam Watson, deputy director of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit at the University of Queensland, says: "In every single Aboriginal death in custody since 1991, police officers across the six [Australian] states and two territories routinely and fundamentally ignored the Royal Commission's key recommendations."

Chris Cunneen, a law professor at the University of New South Wales and an expert on deaths in custody, says what happened on Palm Island was "in many respects a textbook copy of the 99 deaths investigated by the Royal Commission" - including the confrontation between Doomadgee and Hurley, the sense of injustice on the part of the former, and the subsequent riots.

Doomadgee's was only the second death in custody over which a police or prison officer has been prosecuted.

In 1983 five police officers were acquitted of punching and kicking 16-year-old John Pat to death during a brawl outside a pub in Western Australia. Two years ago, in the same state, an Aboriginal elder "cooked to death" while being transported in a prison van in which the air-conditioning had broken.

The Queensland Police Union believes Hurley should never have been put on trial. After he was charged, its members threatened to march on state parliament.

Two other officers who were in the police station at the time of Doomadgee's death refused to co-operate with the prosecution until ordered to do so by the Police Commissioner.

Sam Watson is convinced that the Queensland police culture has not changed.

"They close ranks and defend their own. They refuse to accept any responsibility or acknowledge any fault or wrongdoing," he says.

A union spokesman depicts all the players in the case as victims.

"It's been trying times for Chris Hurley, but we also acknowledge that it's been a very trying time for the Doomadgee family," he says.

"Everyone involved has suffered quite a lot, and the best thing that can happen for all concerned is that we finally get to the end of it.

"I don't think Chris will ever be able to forget the experience of the last few years, and the Doomadgee family are in a similar position. It's not something you can just put behind you.

" I know that Chris feels very sad at what has occurred, and everyone wishes that Cameron [Mulrunji] Doomadgee was still alive."

Hurley, who was "counselled" over a previous incident in which he deliberately reversed his van over an Aboriginal woman's foot, received compensation of more than A$100,000 (NZ$131,000) for property destroyed in the riots. (An inquiry is taking place into an insurance claim he made in relation to the same goods.) Twenty-two other officers caught up in the riots have been given bravery awards.

Gracelyn Smallwood, an indigenous activist based in Townsville, says the family are "just numb".

She says: "If this was all happening to a non-indigenous family in this country, there would be a public outcry. It's like this is normal behaviour for this to happen in Aboriginal Australia."

The new inquest might not necessarily go Hurley's way, particularly now that he has admitted to causing Doomadgee's fatal injuries.

Meanwhile, Doomadgee's sisters and Tracey Twaddle are pursuing a civil case against him.

Their lawyer, Andrew O'Brien, says: "They just want to know why [he] was arrested and 40 minutes later was dead on a watch house floor."