Met says policing of Jiang's visit was 'unlawful'

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Scotland Yard admitted yesterday that its officers unlawfully removed banners and flags from demonstrators protesting against last year's state visit by the Chinese president.

The Metropolitan Police also agreed that it would be against the law to use their vans to screen President Jiang Zemin from the protesters, but argued that the tactic had been used to maintain public safety.

The two declarations were made by police in the High Court yesterday following legal action by the Free Tibet Campaign. The organisation claimed the Met had adopted a policy of removing flags from demonstrators lining The Mall, in central London, and of using police vans to block protesters.

An inquiry was carried out into the policing of the visit after widespread complaints that Scotland Yard and Cambridgeshire police had used heavy handed tactics.

An internal Met investigation found that although the Foreign Office had pressed the police to prevent protesters from disrupting the President's five day visit the Government had not used improper influence.

In an agreed statement the Met said at the High Court yesterday that "it was unlawful for individual officers to remove banners and flags from people solely on the basis that they were protesting against the Chinese regime on The Mall on 19 October 1999".

A carefully-worded additional declaration stated that "it would be unlawful to position police vans in front of protesters if the reason for doing so was to suppress free speech".

But the Met denied vans were used to "mask" demonstrators outside Buckingham Palace and the Chinese embassy. The police contend that the presence of the vehicles was necessary to prevent "a breach of public order".

The police statements were made after the Free Tibet Campaign agreed to not seek permission to launch a judicial review against the Met for its actions. But Alison Reynolds, the campaign's director, insisted yesterday that the Met had been followed a policy of removing anti-Chinese material.

Ms Reynolds pointed to the Met's internal review that acknowledged that the police had been told to search spectators for flags and banners "because of the threat to public order and the dignity of Jiang Zemin".

She said: "We took this court case because we believed the police action during the state visit was unacceptable and unlawful. The police have now admitted their methods of policing were illegal. This is a victory for the democratic right to peaceful protest in this country - something sadly lacking in Chinese-occupied Tibet."

Assistant Commissioner Ian Johnston, said the visit was "a tricky area for our colleagues to deal with and we didn't get it entirely right. We accept absolutely the blame for that".

The internal Met report left officers in no doubt that the visit was extremely sensitive. Michael Messenger, overall operational commander, told his officers: "It would be very embarrassing to the Royal Household, HM Government and particularly the MPS if any demonstrator is allowed to confront the Chinese visitors or throw anything towards the visiting party."