Peace activists were unlawfully detained

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Police unlawfully detained a party of anti-Iraq war activists when they escorted their coaches back to London after stopping them on the way to a protest at an American air base, the High Court ruled yesterday.

In what was being hailed as a landmark test case, the 120 protesters will now be able to seek damages of £3,000 each. They were stopped last March on their way to a vigil at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, which was being used by United States B-52 bombers for missions to Iraq in the opening days of the war.

The judges ruled that although their detention had been wrong, the police had acted within their powers to stop the demonstrators from reaching the base after officers intercepted the coach at the village of Lechlade, close to the air base. This was because of fears that an attempt might be made to attack the base after masks, spray paint, two pairs of scissors and a distress flare were found.

The case was bought by Jane Laporte, from north London, one of the demonstrators, who contended that the action of turning away and of forcible return were unlawful. Lord Justice May, sitting with Mr Justice Harrison, ruled that Ms Laporte's enforced return to London on the coach was in breach of her human rights because "there was no immediately apprehended breach of the peace by her sufficient to justify even transitory detention".

The return journey under police escort had taken two and a half hours without any opportunity to stop, which, the judge said, "went far beyond anything which could conceivably constitute transitory detention".

Ms Laporte's solicitor, John Halford, of Bindman and Partners, said an appeal would be lodged against the upholding of the police right to stop. "It cannot be right for the police to stifle protest by preventing attendance at a demonstration simply on the grounds that some who might attend might cause trouble," he said.

Gloucestershire Constabulary said the force's operational commander was "acting in entirely good faith". It was "naturally disappointed" but added that the force was considering an appeal.