Right to protest 'being undermined by police'

A coalition of campaign groups says the right to hold demonstrations in Britain is being fatally undermined by hardened police tactics, mass criminal trials and pre-emptive arrests.

Defend the Right to Protest, an umbrella organisation that has been founded to support many of the groups behind recent protests against the Government's cuts, is planning to hold a protest outside Westminster magistrates' court this morning against what it says is "widespread tactics of intimidation" against demonstrators.

Some of the 145 people arrested and charged after UK Uncut's protest at Fortnum and Mason are expected to travel to the court today for the beginning of a series of hearings. The arrests, which came after protesters occupied the store in March, have outraged free-speech advocates who accuse the police of deliberately targeting the group.

Tensions between police and protest groups have risen further following the royal wedding, when a number of pre-emptive arrests took place to stop people from holding anti-monarchy demonstrations. Most were arrested on conspiracy to cause a public nuisance, were held for the duration of the wedding celebrations and then released pending further investigation.

"We believe the Fortnum and Mason arrests are a serious curtailment of the right to protest and must be challenged," said Hannah Dee, a spokeswoman for Defend the Right to Protest. "Since then we have seen scores of people arrested before the wedding simply on suspicion of planning to cause a crime."

Sarah McSherry, from Christian Khan solicitors, added: "We have seen a number of tactics which infringe the right to protest. In a worrying development, the latest tool appears to be the use of pre-emptive arrests in the context of the royal wedding. There is a concern that this sets a precedent to be relied upon by the police."