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Right to protest back on trial

The latest round of cases against people accused of defying London's “no-protest zone” began towards the end of January: eleven individuals were scheduled to appear in four separate trials. All had been charged originally under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA) for being part of an “unauthorised demonstration”.

Under the new Act, anyone wishing to demonstrate within 1km of parliament must apply to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner at least six days in advance or, if not “reasonably practicable”, 24 hours in advance. Permission must be granted, but the Commissioner can impose a range of conditions on protest, including: when and where it can take place; how long it can last; how many people can attend; how much noise can be made; and the number and size of banners and placards used.
    In response to the new measures, campaigners have been coming together regularly both to deliberately and very publicly defy the ban, and to hold events which mock and test its interpretation.

Criminalising protest

First up was a group of four seemingly unconnected individuals, who had wittingly or unwittingly participated in a Stop the War Coalition-organised public ban breaking event held on 1 August 2005. The group included long term Brian Haw supporter and former electoral campaign manager Maria Gallastegui.
    After a three-day trial, all four were convicted of participating in an unauthorised protest, receiving conditional discharges, a small fine in the case of one, and being ordered to pay courts costs of between #50 and #150 each.
    Next up, on 18 January, was Mark Barrett who was arrested on 28 August 2005 after taking part in a “free speech tea party” in Parliament Square: he had been sitting on the grass drinking tea and eating cake. Commenting on his case he said, “Our picnic is a creative response which challenges the unconstitutional SOCPA legislation, which arbitrarily criminalises any public behaviour and all spontaneous peaceful expression around Parliament: a huge and telling affront to our supposed democracy.” Due to lack of court time on the day, his case has now been adjourned until 31 March.
    Less than a week later the case of five of the first arrestees under the legislation began at Bow Street Magistrates' Court in central London.
    Emma Sangster, Caroline Simpson, and three others, were arrested on 7 August 2005 at a demonstration in Parliament Square held deliberately in defiance of the new restrictions on protest in the area. All five were convicted and are expected to appeal.
    Speaking before her trial, defendant - and regular PN contributor - Emma Sangster said, “Protest is becoming increasingly prohibited and criminalised, yet it is through protest that the rights which we all take for granted, including freedom of speech and association, have been won over the centuries. Things are in a sorry state when [these] are regulated by what amount to political decisions by the police.”
    Chris Coverdale had also been due to go to trial on 19 January, however his case was adjourned until 7 March.

Going down in history

In related news, Milan Rai managed to earn himself a place in the civil liberties history books when, on 19 January, he became the first person to be charged with being the “organiser” of an unauthorised demonstration.
    Mil had been arrested on 25 October 2005 for organising the demonstration that led to the well publicised December conviction of Maya Evans - the first conviction of anyone for participating in an unauthorised protest. At the time he was released without charge, but on attending Charing Cross police station in January, he became the first person to be charged with the more serious offence.
    In October Mil and Maya were arrested opposite Downing Street, while they were reading the names of Iraqi civilians and British soldiers who have died in the illegal occupation of Iraq. Speaking in January after being charged, he said, “We should not have to ask permission to remember the dead. I am prepared to go to court and I am prepared to go to prison to oppose war and the erosion of our rights.” Mil was due to attend court for an initial hearing on 26 January.
    On 22 February, lone demonstrator Barbara Tucker - who reportedly held up a banner reading “I am not the serious organised criminal” outside parliament - is due to go to trial.
    To date almost 30 people have been arrested under SOCPA.
    Defendants in anti-SOCPA trials need your support. All cases are currently being held at Bow Street. Picnics continue to take place in Parliament Square each Sunday - all welcome.