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George Monbiot on civil liberties

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:02 pm on 12 October, 2005.
Categories political liberties, democracy and the rule of law.
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George Monbiot, in an article he wrote for the Guardian, notes the impact recent government legislation has had on peaceful protestors in Britain. For example:

No act has been passed over the past 20 years with the aim of preventing antisocial behaviour, disorderly conduct, trespass, harassment and terrorism that has not also been deployed to criminalise a peaceful public engagement in politics. When Walter Wolfgang was briefly detained by the police after heckling the foreign secretary last week, the public caught a glimpse of something that a few of us have been vainly banging on about for years.

On Friday, six students and graduates of Lancaster University were convicted of aggravated trespass. Their crime was to have entered a lecture theatre and handed out leaflets to the audience. Staff at the university were meeting people from BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, Shell, the Carlyle Group, GlaxoSmithKline, DuPont, Unilever and Diageo, to learn how to “commercialise university research”. The students were hoping to persuade the researchers not to sell their work. They were in the theatre for three minutes. As the judge conceded, they tried neither to intimidate anyone nor to stop the conference from proceeding.

They were prosecuted under the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, passed when Michael Howard was the Conservative home secretary. But the university was able to use it only because Labour amended the act in 2003 to ensure that it could be applied anywhere, rather than just “in the open air”.

And:

Had Mr Wolfgang said “nonsense” twice during the foreign secretary’s speech, the police could have charged him under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Harassment, the act says, “must involve conduct on at least two occasions … conduct includes speech”. Parliament was told that its purpose was to protect women from stalkers, but the first people to be arrested were three peaceful protesters. Since then it has been used by the arms manufacturer EDO to keep demonstrators away from its factory gates, and by Kent police to arrest a woman who sent an executive at a drugs company two polite emails, begging him not to test his products on animals. In 2001 the peace campaigners Lindis Percy and Anni Rainbow were prosecuted for causing “harassment, alarm or distress” to American servicemen at the Menwith Hill military intelligence base in Yorkshire, by standing at the gate holding the Stars and Stripes and a placard reading “George W Bush? Oh dear!” In Hull a protester was arrested under the act for “staring at a building”.

And:


But the law that has proved most useful to the police is the one under which Mr Wolfgang was held: section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. This allows them to stop and search people without the need to show that they have “reasonable suspicion” that a criminal offence is being committed. They have used it to put peaceful protesters through hell. At the beginning of 2003, demonstrators against the impending war with Iraq set up a peace camp outside the military base at Fairford in Gloucestershire, from which US B52s would launch their bombing raids. Every day - sometimes several times a day - the protesters were stopped and searched under section 44. The police, according to a parliamentary answer, used the act 995 times, though they knew that no one at the camp was a terrorist. The constant harassment and detention pretty well broke the protesters’ resolve. Since then the police have used the same section to pin down demonstrators outside the bomb depot at Welford in Berkshire, at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, at Menwith Hill and at the annual arms fair in London’s Docklands.

Note that Walter Wolfgang was thrown out of the recent Labour party conference for shouting “nonsense” during a ministerial speech and then had Terrorism Act 2000 used against him to prevent him re-entering the conference.

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