A storm in a tea shop?

Pressure mounts to drop charges against non-violent protesters

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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?

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 The calls come after proceedings against five of the youngest campaigners were deemed not in the public interest and withdrawn from the courts.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.

Case Study

Anna Mason

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."

Arts and Entertainment
Sheeran arrives at the 56th annual Grammy Awards earlier this year
musicYes, that would be Ed Sheeran, according to the BBC
Sport
Rio Ferdinand, Alan Shearer, Alan Hansen and Gary Lineker during Hansen's final broadcast
Sport
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Eminem's daughter Hailie has graduated from high school
music
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment
TVHoax announcement had caused outrage
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
One Direction star Harry Styles who says he has no plans to follow his pal Cara Delevingne down the catwalk.
peopleManagement confirms rumours singer is going it alone are false
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Arts and Entertainment
'Deep Breath' is Peter Capaldi's first full-length adventure as the twelfth Doctor
TVFirst episode of new series has ended up on the internet
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?