Campaigner faces jail for anti-war tea party outside Parliament

A peace activist who organised an anti-war tea party that took place opposite the House of Commons faces prison.

Mark Barrett, a tour guide, was convicted under recent legislation banning demonstrations near Parliament and was fined £500 including costs.

He is one of a group of activists who meet every week to drink tea and eat cake on Parliament Square in protest at "an attack on freedom of expression".

After being found guilty of unlawful protest by Bow Street magistrates, Mr Barrett insisted he would not pay the fine.

He said: "If it means I will go to prison, then I am prepared. I may be breaking the law but it is a law I don't believe in. I don't believe peaceful protesters who have a disagreement with the way the state operates should ask permission to make their views known, particularly in this location." Mr Barrett, 36, was arrested in August under section 132 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, which requires protesters to obtain police permission before demonstrating within a kilometre of Parliament.

He said: "We were sitting down, sharing food, and a police inspector told us he believed we were having an unauthorised protest and if we didn't break up we would be arrested. When I refused to go away, I was picked up and bundled into a police van."

Maya Evans, 25, a chef, became the first person to be convicted under the legislation last year. She received a conditional discharge with costs of £200.

She was given a conditional discharge after she was arrested at the Cenotaph in Whitehall reading out the names of British soldiers killed in Iraq.

The legislation was drawn up in an unsuccessful attempt to evict Brian Haw from Parliament Square. Mr Haw has staged a protest outside the Commons for more than four years. Critics have denounced the law for undermining free speech and have accused police of inconsistency in its application.

Last Sunday, 150 demonstrators with banners, including the actress Joanna Lumley, gathered in Parliament Square to listen to a list of civilians killed in the Iraq war. Only one protester was reported for a potent summons.

Nor were any arrests made four days before Christmas when 150 people gathered in the square for a carol service in memory of "those who have died and suffered as a result of conflict".

Milan Rai, who was standing alongside Ms Evans when she was arrested, said: "It is such a stupid law. They do not have any clear guidelines on when to come down hard and when to go easy and use discretion." Mr Rai will learn next week whether he will be prosecuted for organising the Cenotaph protest.

James Welch, the legal director for Liberty, which is representing Mr Rai, said: "Of course the work of parliamentarians and Government must be safe from threat but how can arresting and banging up someone for peacefully honouring British soldiers possibly be proportionate?"

There have been 11 convictions for unauthorised demonstrations near Parliament. People who want to protest in the area have to apply to the Metropolitan Police six days in advance or, if not "reasonably practicable", 24 hours in advance. The Independent disclosed yesterday that the first two arrests have been made under a separate section of the Act, which curtails protests at military and nuclear sites. Helen John, 68, and Sylvia Boyes, 62, face up to 51 weeks in jail or a fine of £5,000 after entering Menwith Hill, a US base in North Yorkshire.

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