A storm in a tea shop?
Pressure mounts to drop charges against non-violent protesters
It started with a peaceful protest in Fortnum & Mason. Then came the mass arrests – and the allegations of police duplicity. Charges followed; next week, the trials are due to start. Now five cases have been dropped, and the pressure to drop 139 more is starting to look irresistible. Has it all been absurdly wasteful?
Saturday 02 July 2011
Pressure is mounting for prosecutors to drop charges against more than 100 members of the 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 The calls come after proceedings against five of the youngest campaigners were deemed not in the public interest and withdrawn from the courts.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 (CPS) to drop the case against all 139 anti-tax avoidance campaigners who were arrested and detained for up to 24 hours after occupying Fortnum & Mason during an anti-cuts demonstration.
Five minors, aged from 15 to 17, have had all charges against them thrown out before a dozen defendants face their first day in court on Tuesday.
Police arrested 146 protesters on charges of aggravated trespass after they stormed the luxury retailer during a TUC march, in protest against the company's alleged tax avoidance. Charges against two protesters have already been dropped. 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. The cases of 30 protesters are to be heard from Tuesday, when 13 of these will enter a plea at City of Westminster magistrates' court. The CPS is reviewing the remaining 109 cases that were to be brought to court.
UK Uncut has received support from politicians and performers since their first campaigns and an Early Day Motion was scheduled last year by several MPs to "congratulate" them for "drawing attention by peaceful demonstrations to tax-evasion and avoidance".
Labour MP John McDonnell, who signed the motion, told The Independent: "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. It would be barmy."
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".
Anna Mason, a 15-year-old schoolgirl from Liverpool, spent a night alone in a police cell after she was handcuffed and arrested after leaving the Fortnum & Mason occupation. She was placed on constant watch because of increased anxiety and she ended up vomiting on her bed.
She said she found it difficult to concentrate on her GCSE exams with the court case looming and is "delighted" to have the charges against her dropped. "I didn't plan to be this big rebel or an anarchist. That was just not what this protest was about; it was peaceful. After that night, I just felt exhausted all the time and some days I couldn't even go into school because my body just couldn't do what it was meant to. I felt like everything had gone insane."
Tyler Perkin, a 17-year-old schoolboy from Essex who was kept in a police cell in Lewisham for 17 hours after the occupation said he was "really happy" his charges had been dropped. "We ended up in a cell when we just wanted to make the world a better place and I found that hard to accept," he said.
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."
Supporters rallied round UK Uncut after a video emerged of a police officer telling the group inside Fortnum & Mason that they had been "non-violent" and "sensible". Minutes later, the protesters were individually arrested. Raj Chada, a solicitor at Hodge Jones & Allen, who represents 20 of the defendants, said it was likely lawyers would be mounting an "abuse of process" defence.
Mike Schwarz, a solicitor for Bindmans – the law firm representing about 110 of the UK Uncut protesters – said he thought the arrests and prosecutions "appeared to be carried out for political and illogical reasons". He said he had made representations for all cases against his clients, aged between 18 and 60, to be dropped.
Alison Saunders, chief prosecutor for CPS London, said: "The Crown Prosecution Service has decided that the cases of five youths, who were charged by the police following the protests in Fortnum & Mason on 26 March, should be discontinued. We have concluded that it would not be proportionate to prosecute these youths as they have not committed a similar offence previously, and the evidence shows that their behaviour was not at the more serious end of the spectrum for this offence. We are in the process of reviewing a number of the other cases."
Adam Ramsay, a 25-year-old protester who was detained for 22 hours at Ilford police station after the occupation and now faces court next week, said: "It's great to see so many calling for the charges to be dropped. No one benefits from me being sent to court next week, or from paying anti-terrorism officers to spend hours trawling through my confiscated phone and clothes. Why are they wasting vast resources to charge people with sitting peacefully in a shop, while doing almost nothing to catch tax-dodgers?"
How the case unfolded
*Saturday 26 March: 146 UK Uncut demonstrators are arrested by the Metropolitan Police on charges of aggravated trespass for occupying the central London department store, Fortnum & Mason.
*Sunday 27 March: Activists are released from various London police stations after spending up to 24 hours in prison cells.
*Tuesday 28 June: The CPS takes the decision to discontinue the cases against five minors because they are not thought to be in the public interest.
*Tuesday 5 July: The first 13 defendants who have been selected by the CPS are due to appear at City of Westminster magistrates' court to enter their plea. Seventeen others have also been selected to appear before magistrates, but dates have not been finalised yet.
*November: The 30 cases so far selected by the CPS are expected to start in autumn. Trials could go on until early next year, according to lawyers.
The 15-year-old schoolgirl from Liverpool says she spent most of her time inside Fortnum & Mason singing and admiring people's banners. She had plans to meet a friend for coffee after the protest, but ended up spending 24 hours alone in a north London police cell.
"I arrived at Islington police station and was given a banana because I had low salt levels," she said. "I was stripped, had my DNA taken and was given a white tracksuit. I tried to sleep in my cell but I was on constant watch for my anxiety. I saw a doctor and was given breakfast, but I ended up vomiting on my clothes.
"I couldn't stop thinking about my mum's reaction and how this might affect me getting jobs in the future.
"The whole experience has been exhausting, emotional and confusing and I never thought it would happen to me. I've sometimes found it hard to even go into school and keep studying for my GCSEs, but now I've taken them I'm going to pour my energy into supporting other defendants facing charges. I know what they have been through and how hard it can be. Now, I want to help them."
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