Veteran protesters face jail under new anti-terror laws

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It takes a brave - or foolhardy - law enforcer to drag Helen John before the courts. The Metropolitan Police tried it seven years ago after the peace campaigner had daubed the 18in-high message "Ban Trident", referring to the nuclear warhead of that name, on to the Houses of Parliament. The jury, which convicted her of criminal damage, also said it "unanimously agreed that the defendant had a reasonable cause for her action".

Today, Mrs John will discover whether the Government will try its luck again, by making her and fellow veteran peace protester Sylvia Boyes the first individuals to face charges under a little-noticed clause in the Government's Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, which came into force last month.

Mrs John, 68, and Mrs Boyes, 62, who have been told to report to Harrogate police station to hear their fate, were arrested on 2 April after setting out to highlight the law, which civil liberties groups believe will criminalise free speech and undermine the right to peaceful demonstration, under the guise of the war on terror. If the Attorney General does exercise his right to charge them, he will hand the women a welcome boost to what has become an increasingly lonely struggle to highlight concerns about Menwith Hill, the shadowy American communications interception unit in the Yorkshire Dales where they were arrested.

Mrs Boyes demonstrated her disdain for the threat of charges, which could bring a year's imprisonment or £5,000 fine, by returning to Menwith for a "celebration picnic" within a week of her arrest. Mrs John has equal resolve - though it has been constrained by problems with her van, which gets her to Menwith from her small terraced home in Keighley, west Yorkshire.

"This will not stop me, whether they charge me or not," said Mrs Boyes, a Quaker whose philosophy is more pacifist and less overtly political than her friend's. "I am still utterly dumbfounded that we were arrested like that, straight away, under legislation designed to counter international organised crime and international terrorism. Terrorists attack buses and the Underground - places where people are - not remote bases. And since when did drug traffickers go to military bases?"

Mrs Boyes also has a track record for making a fool of prosecuting barristers. After going on trial in 2001 for causing criminal damage to a Trident submarine docked at Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, she argued that her actions were preventing a greater evil and was acquitted.

Mrs John, a former midwife, moved to Yorkshire in 1993 and set up a permanent women's peace camp at Menwith Hill to try to draw attention to claims that commercial espionage was being pursued there.