Marathon court hearing over sex offender protests

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The Independent Online

More than 30 people, including a bewildered 12-year-old schoolboy, were brought before a marathon court hearing yesterday to face allegations that they took part in violence during the anti-paedophile protests that convulsed a Portsmouth housing estate in the summer.

More than 30 people, including a bewildered 12-year-old schoolboy, were brought before a marathon court hearing yesterday to face allegations that they took part in violence during the anti-paedophile protests that convulsed a Portsmouth housing estate in the summer.

A procession of defendants, more than two-thirds of them juveniles, was brought before a district judge during the four-hour session resulting from a Hampshire Police investigation - dubbed Operation Sackville - into the seven nights of vigilantism on the streets of Paulsgrove in August this year.

The hearing threatened to re-ignite tensions in the area on the northern tip of Portsmouth as leaders of the protests sparked by the News of the World's ill-fated campaign to name and shame sex offenders dismissed the charges against them as "trumped up nonsense".

Portsmouth City Council, landlord to many of the accused, said yesterday that it would consider evicting any of those convicted by the courts on the basis that they were guilty of anti-social behaviour.

But in an almost collective show of defiance, all but three of the group of 35 residents who were asked to enter a plea on offences ranging from affray to grievous bodily harm told a packed Portsmouth magistrates' court that they were not guilty.

Katrina Kessell, 33, one of the leaders of the August demonstrations, who herself denied charges of causing distress and obstructing a police officer, said outside the court: "The protests were by ordinary people who wanted to show their concern about a subject that the Government was ignoring.

"No one wanted violence and no one condoned it, but all but one of the paedophiles on our estate have now gone. What we get in return is the load of trumped-up charges that we have seen here today."

The allegations against the protesters, consisting of 14 adults and 21 minors who cannot be named - painted a graphic picture in court of the nature of the violence that gripped Paulsgrove between 3 and 10 August.

Four men denied affray after fingerprints allegedly linked them to petrol bombs found on the estate at the height of the demonstrations. Another man, a 42-year-old father appearing alongside his 17-year-old son, trooped into the dock accused of hurling himself at a line of riot police in an incident during which an officer was bitten on the hand. Two girls, aged 14 and 16, appeared charged with spitting at a police officer.

The first night of the demonstrations, 3 August, had been the worst, when a crowd clashed with police outside a flat belonging to Victor Burnett, a paedophile named on the first day of the News of the World campaign, who fled his home minutes before a mob broke into the building and ransacked his property.

Wayne Shipp, 23, of Cheltenham Road, Paulsgrove, appeared charged with causing grievous bodily harm after a police officer on duty that night,PC Mark Russell, was hit in the face by a flying brick. Mr Shipp denied a further charge of violent disorder.

But it was the high proportion of school-age youngsters that caused the murmurs of surprise in court two yesterday. The chamber of law at one stage bore closer resemblance to a school assembly hall as one batch of 11 juveniles was brought in shortly after 11am.

Two teenage brothers, charged with burglary, sat just feet from an angelic 12-year-old who faces an allegation of violent disorder. Such was the bewilderment of the younger boy, measuring little more than four feet in height, that he did not even have a solicitor until the lawyer for the twins stepped in to give some last-minute legal advice to the diminutive alleged hooligan and his grandmother.

The group of youngsters, facing charges relating to the first night of violence along with six adults, sat as if in a classroom - passing bubblegum to each other and giggling before they were called to order by district judge John Woollard.

Minutes later they were told, along with most of the adults at the hearing, that such was the gravity of the allegations they face that they could only be tried at a crown court.

The week-long vigil outside the homes of suspected and often mistargeted "paedophiles" left behind it in August a trail of graffiti, broken windows, burnt-out cars and the 10 empty homes of families and individuals who fled the estate.

By the end of yesterday's hearing 35 people had appeared to face 14 charges of violent disorder, seven of criminal damage, nine of affray, four of burglary and two of assisting an offender.

Guilty pleas came from a 16-year-old boy who admitted telling a friend to head-butt the police officer trying to arrest him, and a 13-year-old girl who conceded she had helped to damage a Ford Escort belonging to a target of the mob.

Helen Setford, 39, of Clacton Road, Wymering, admitted obstructing police by confronting a video surveillance team sent to follow the demonstrations.

The remainder of the Paulsgrove 35 were bailed to attend a further hearing next month.

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