`King Arthur' strikes blow for liberty

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The Independent Online
Magistrates in Salisbury dealt another blow to the Criminal Justice Act yesterday by finding the self-styled King Arthur not guilty of trespassary assembly.

The trespassary assembly provisions of the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act were designed to prevent gatherings of 20 people or more at places such as Stonehenge during the summer solstice. Wiltshire police used the provisions to bolster their annual four-mile exclusion zone around Stonehenge during the solstice

On 20 June, Arthur Pendragon, official swordbearer of the Secular Order of Druids and a member of three other druidic orders, gathered with a few of his brethren to worship. About 20 other individuals were on the same road which runs within yards of Stonehenge. Shortly after midnight the police told them all to leave the area, arresting those who refused.

Mr Pendragon was arrested and charged with trespassary assembly. He denied the charges, claiming the police had infringed his freedom of worship guaranteed under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. He also argued that they infringed his freedom of assembly under Article 11 and that he was not breaking the law because he acted as an individual.

Wearing white druidic robes and an iron headband, and swearing his oath over "Excalibur", he said his intentions on the night were entirely peaceful: "to perform a religious ceremony at dawn or to get as close as possible without being arrested".

In the two previous years, he said, the police had allowed him to worship at the same spot on the road.

James Stythe, for the prosecution, argued that all the people in the area should be considered part of a larger group who were all trespassing on the highway, and that the European Convention on Human Rights did not apply in the UK.

Keir Starmer, for Mr Pendragon, said the House of Lords had ruled in 1964 that English courts were entitled to take into account international treaty obligations when interpreting the law. That precedent, taken with others, ensured that the European Convention was binding on English law.

After 15 minutes' deliberation, the magistrates delivered a not guilty verdict. Mr Pendragon said afterwards that he was delighted. "This judgment proves that druids have a legal right to be at Stonehenge. We're not a trespassary force - we have a right to worship there."

Less than two weeks ago a group of travellers also scored a victory over the Act when the High Court ruled that their eviction was unlawful. The court said that travellers, the prime target of the Act, had a right to "common humanity" and their welfare had to be taken into account.

Brendan Delaney, spokesman for Liberty, which helped Mr Pendragon with yesterday's case, said the judgment "left the Act in tatters".