Calls grow to drop charges against store protesters

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The Independent Online

Pressure is mounting for prosecutors to drop charges against more than a hundred members of anti-cuts group UK Uncut, who occupied a central London department store in March.

The calls come after proceedings against five of the youngest campaigners were deemed not in the public interest and withdrawn from the courts.

Lawyers, politicians and campaigners are calling for the Crown Prosecution Service to drop the case against all 139 campaigners who were arrested and detained for up to 24 hours after occupying Fortnum & Mason during an anti-cuts demonstration.

Police arrested 146 protesters on charges of aggrevated trespass after they stormed the luxury retailers during the TUC march in protest against the company's alleged tax avoidance. Charges against two protestors have already been dropped, while five minors, who are aged between 15 and 17, have had all charges against them thrown out.

The cases of 30 other defendants are due to be heard from Tuesday, when 13 of these will enter a plea at Westminster City Magistrates Court.

The activists face having criminal records and a maximum, three-month prison sentence if they are found guilty, but there is growing concern that the prosecution process will be disproportionate and costly.

Labour MP John McDonnell said: "It would be outrageous if they dragged these people through the courts. It would be a complete waste of court time and of resources and I think it would fly in the face of public opinion."

Liberty, the human rights organisation, said it "deplored" the offence of aggravated trespass. A resolution at its annual general meeting last month called for a repeal of the offence, which it said was "unnecessary, disproportionate and inconsistent with the stated policy of the coalition Government in relation to the right of peaceful protest."

Andrew Neilson, assistant director at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: "A police cell is not an appropriate place for a child... Heavy-handed responses to non-violent behaviour puts a burden on police who should be dealing with serious crimes.

"The threat of prison should be reserved for those who have committed serious and violent offences and are a danger to the public."

From Josie Long, comedian: "The police on the scene at Fortnums explicitly told protesters the occupation had been non-violent and orderly... It is totally unacceptable for these charges to go ahead."