The attempt by Twiggy Garcia, a London bar worker, to arrest Tony Blair last week for crimes against peace in Iraq was a brave effort to bring to justice a former Prime Minister who many people regard as having got away with waging an illegal war.
This is the value of citizen's arrest powers: they grant ordinary people the right to arrest the bad guys when the forces of law and order fail to do so. Too often the rich and powerful use their influence to evade justice. The right of citizen's arrest gives the unrich and unpowerful the means to make sure they don't get away with it.
The citizen's arrest statute dates back to medieval England and common law. It is today enshrined in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. Every citizen has the right to perform an arrest if they have evidence that a person has committed a crime.
I used this power in my two attempted citizen's arrests of the Zimbabwean tyrant Robert Mugabe. I had evidence from Amnesty International that he had authorised the torture of Ray Choto and Mark Chavunduka, two journalists, in Harare. Torture is illegal under the UN Convention Against Torture and under Section 134 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988.
My first attempt was in London in 1999. Together with three colleagues from OutRage!, the queer rights group, I ran in front of Mugabe's limousine, forcing it to halt. I opened the rear door (amazingly it was unlocked) and physically arrested Mugabe on charges of torture. When the police arrived, they ignored the evidence of Mugabe's criminal acts. We were arrested, while he was given police escort to go Christmas shopping at Harrods.
Presumably, the then Metropolitan Police Commissioner and Attorney General were informed and they decided to allow Mugabe to return to Zimbabwe without facing any charges. In effect, they facilitated the continuation of his reign of terror and torture. On the opening day of our trial, all charges were dropped. I suspect because we had acted lawfully and the authorities did not want it tested in court. They feared that our possible acquittal might popularise citizen's arrests and give encouragement to others.
My second citizen's arrest bid was in 2001 in Brussels. When the Belgian government ignored my formal request to arrest Mugabe for torture, I ambushed him in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel. This time, I was beaten unconscious by his body guards in full view of the Belgian police and secret service agents.
Neither of my attempts to bring Mugabe to justice succeeded. But the worldwide media coverage did draw attention to his human-rights abuses and gave a moral boost to the people of Zimbabwe who thought, at the time, that the outside world neither knew nor cared about their suffering.
This is one of the great virtues of an attempted citizen's arrest. Even if it doesn't succeed, it can help publicise an injustice. It's a way of raising awareness.
Since the Mugabe bid, I've plotted similar attempts on George W Bush, Ariel Sharon and Tony Blair. Alas, the security ring was too tight. But others have had a go. In 2008, journalist George Monbiot tried to arrest John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the UN. Two years later, in Canada, there was an attempted citizen's arrest of George W Bush. Also in 2010, Ed Balls MP faced an arrest bid by Democracy Village peace protesters for his support of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Citizen's arrests are about citizen's power. They are an essential element of a democratic judicial system. Long may they continue.
Peter Tatchell is director of the human rights lobby the Peter Tatchell Foundation: www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org
Tony Blair: A career of controversies
Tony Blair: A career of controversies
The Tony Blair 'selfie'.. A journalist takes a picture of Kennard Phillips 'Photo Op', depicting Prime Minister Tony Blair taking a 'selfie' in front of an explosion in Iraq, during a press viewing of the exhibition Catalyst: Contemporary Art and War
Protesters pictured outside the QEII Conference centre in London in 2011 as former British PM Tony Blair give his evidence in the Chilcot Iraq Inquiry
David Lawley-Wakelin, who disrupted Tony Blair’s testimony at the Leveson Inquiry by bursting into the court
Blair giving evidence
Tony Blair visiting troops in Iraq in 2007
Blair meeting with troops in Basra, Iraq in 2003
Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair speaks to British soldiers at Divisional Headquaters in Basra, May 2007
British Prime Minister Tony Blair eats dinner with British troops in Basra, Iraq, 21 December, 2004
Syrian president Bashar El Assad during his official visit to the United Kingdom in 2002. Mr Blair tried to engage Mr Garcia in a conversation about Syria. The former Prime Minister made clear he was very much in favour of military intervention last summer.
Syrian president Bashar El Assad and wife Asma during their official visit to the United Kingdom in 2002. Mr Blair tried to engage Mr Garcia in a conversation about Syria
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair's signature adorns a program he signed for an Iraq veteran during a reception at the Guildhall in London following the service of commemoration at St Paul's Cathedral honouring UK military and civilian personnel who served in Iraq
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