Two men paid to burn M11 protesters' camp are jailed: Mystery still surrounds the identity of ringleaders. Christian Wolmar reports

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The Independent Online
TWO MEN who were paid to burn down a camp being occupied by anti-roads protesters were jailed at the Old Bailey yesterday.

Martin Courtney and John Roe were among a group of nine men recruited at the Winchester, a private drinking club in Southend, for the early-morning attack last December on a tree and surrounding tents occupied by protesters fighting the construction of the M11 link road in Wanstead, east London. The identities of those behind the attack are not known.

The protesters were squatting on George Green in Wanstead and resisting attempts to evict them from the tree and neighbouring houses. Demolition contractors were waiting for court bailiffs to clear the site to move in to pull down the tree, which was eventually taken over by bailiffs on 7 December, four days after the attack.

The 3 1/2 -mile road, which has been delayed by the protest, is now being built at a cost of more than pounds 200m and involves the demolition of 350 houses.

On 3 December, the group of men drove from Southend in two cars but Roe claimed that he was unaware of the intended violent nature of the attack until petrol was loaded into the boot of his Ford Cortina in Redbridge, and his passengers began arming themselves with hammers and crowbars.

According to Howard Johnson, who was in the 200- year-old tree when it was set on fire, 'there was total mayhem. There were men with balaclavas and hats pulled over their faces running around with crowbars and hammers. A tent (occupied by Steve King and one other person) was set on fire.'

But Mr Johnson said that Courtney, who was high on amphetamines and alcohol, helped a woman protester out of the tree once he realised that she might be in danger. Mr Johnson added: 'This is the sort of thing you see in Italy, not in Britain. It's a bit soul-destroying that the big men are not on trial. My main concern is that it is taxpayers' money behind this, because it is taxpayers who are funding the cost of the road.'

Jailing the two men, Judge Kenneth Richardson said: 'The gravity of this case and the reason why no sentence other than prison can be justified lies in the fact that both of you were part of a gang hired to scare away persons involved in lawful protest and scare them away with methods involving violence.'

He accepted that the men had not tried to endanger the lives of the protesters and that had they done so, 'the sentences would have been twice the level of those I have imposed'. He went on: 'The only regret is those responsible for hiring you are not before the court.'

Courtney, 38, a builder, of Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, who has been unemployed for the last 12 years and has 'an appalling criminal record' which includes several convictions for violence, was sentenced to three and a half years after admitting affray and arson.

Roe, 44, of Southend, was jailed for two and a half years. He had admitted affray and dangerous driving and was convicted of arson.

A Department of Transport spokesman said last night that after the attack there was an investigation among its own staff, consulting engineers and agents 'but there was no evidence to suggest that they were involved'.

The protesters say that, earlier the same night, the same group or another connected group was involved in an attack on cars belonging to campaigners living in nearby Leytonstone, along the path of the proposed road.

Courtney claimed that he was paid pounds 100 for the attack. Roe, who was a driver, stayed in his car during the raid. He said he was paid pounds 50 but that the paymasters had pounds 12,000 earmarked for the raid.

The police investigation was hampered by the silence of those involved in the attack and they have been unable to ascertain who was behind it. However, the police, who made a number of other arrests during the inquiry, are making further inquiries into the identities of the ringleaders. During the trial, a police witness implied that he knew the identity of the paymasters but had insufficient evidence to bring them to trial.

Although the M11 protesters have been squatting and occupying houses and land along the path of the road for a year, relations with the local police, many of whom privately support the protest, are fairly cordial. The case was pursued through the courts although there were doubts about whether the witnesses, many of whom were protesters, would turn up to give evidence. In the event, one man flew to London from Berlin to testify.

The case was seen as politically sensitive because the roads protest has widespread local support and both the police and the Crown Prosecution Service were anxious to bring it to a successful conclusions. A CPS source said: 'It would not have looked good if we prosecute demonstrators who commit offences during protests but not these men who were clearly violent.'

However, the sentence was not welcomed by the protesters. Mr Johnson said outside the court: 'You think that you'll be pleased by a verdict like this but I'm worried that they got too much. They weren't the organisers. They were just the little guys. We didn't want to see these guys go down, we wanted the real culprits to be found.'

(Photograph omitted)