Yesterday in the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Mr Justice Burton decided that four people who had taken part in a protest on 16 June had broken an injunction taken out last year against Genetix Snowball, an eco-activist group formed last year in the Manchester area, by the American biotechnology company Monsanto. None of those found guilty yesterday were named in the injunction. However the injunction describes a member of the group as "those who actively support that organisation or campaign on that organisation's behalf".
Before the protest only one of the defendants, Martin Shaw, had heard of the injunction, which names six people and "members of Genetix Snowball". The court heard thatShaw thought the injunction did not apply to him, though he felt it was "a legal grey area".
The three other defendants only heard of the injunction the night before their protest, when Shaw mentioned it to them when passing out copies of a handbook written by Genetix Snowball detailing how to protest against GM crops, which also mentions the injunction.
But the court ruled that Shaw, 34, should have taken further steps to find out if he was covered by the injunction - and that he was. The other defendants - Jill Bee, 52, an art teacher, Alex Potts, 21, a trainee teacher, and Rod Melia, 30, a gardener, were judged also to have broken the injunction, though not so seriously as Shaw. They had uprooted GM sugar beet on a plot of land near Royston in Hertfordshire,
The ruling effectively means that anyone encouraged by people allied with Genetix Snowball to tear up crops could be judged to have breached the injunction. Furthermore, as the case is civil, not criminal, it is heard by a judge rather than a jury and because it involves contempt of court, breaking the injunction carries a penalty of up to two years in jail.
Biotechnology companies can thus prevent named groups and members from tearing up GM crops, effectively limiting their protest to indirect action.
Sarah Burton, the campaigns director at Greenpeace - which is not linked to Genetix Snowball - said: "We have had a lot of injunctions against us from various organisations. It limits the action we can take, but has never stopped us campaigning effectively."
Yesterday Mr Justice Burton sentenced Shaw to a month in prison, suspended for one year, for breaking the injunction.Shaw condemned the ruling afterwards as "the privatisation of the legal system". Both Monsanto and AgrEvo, which is carrying out farm-scale trials of GM products, have taken out similar injunctions.
The judge imposed no sentence on the other protesters but ruled that their names should be added to those on the original injunction. He said, "When certain court orders are made, they must be obeyed. The defendants were in plain breach of a court order."
t Lord Melchett, the executive director of Greenpeace, was yesterday granted conditional bail having earlier been refused it when he appeared before a stipendiary magistrate in Norwich, accused with 27 others over an attack on a genetically modified crop trial at Lyng, near Dereham in Norfolk.
Judge David Mellor granted bail after an application in chambers at Norwich Crown Court which lasted for just over half an hour.
After the chambers hearing, Lord Melchett's QC, Owen Davies, said one of the conditions was that Lord Melchett must not trespass on or uproot GM crops.