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HOUSE OF LORDS TO HEAR ANTI-WAR PROTESTORS' TEST CASE

Andy Newman


The House of Lords have confirmed that they will hear the case of anti-war protestors who were turned away, by police, from a demonstration at RAF Fairford on 22 March 2003, just two days after coalition forces launched an attack on Iraq. 120 protestors were turned away by police from an anti-war demonstration and detained for over two hours.

John Halford, the solicitor taking the case forward, said: 'The House of Lords grant leave to appeal to only a few cases a year.  Their decision to hear this case clearly demonstrates that this is a case of constitutional importance.'

Campaigners taking the case forward petitioned the House of Lords after the Court of Appeal ruled in December that, although the police acted unlawfully in detaining them on their coaches, their rights to freedom of movement and of lawful assembly were not violated by being turned away from the demonstration at RAF Fairford.

Giving judgment, Lord Chief Justice Lord Woolf stated that, 'the passengers were virtually prisoners on the coaches for the length of the journey.'

Gloucestershire constabulary have chosen not to appeal a ruling that they acted unlawfully in detaining the passengers in their coaches. They had argued that they were protecting the protestors' right to life by detaining them and forcing their return to London.  In his statement, Chief Superintendent Kevin Lambert, the officer in charge of policing the protest, warned that:

'had a member of the public penetrated the defences and been killed or injured by one of the armed personnel guarding the B52 aircraft…the public reaction and political consequences would have been extremely damaging to the coalition partners'.

Helen Wickham, a passenger on the coaches, said: "I think it is deeply worrying that Gloucestershire police, confronted with the possibility of US troops shooting protestors who breached the base, chose to defend the US use of lethal force over our right to protest, and pursue a political agenda."

Jane Laporte, the named claimant, said: "the right to protest is something we celebrate when we see it exercised abroad, but this fundamental democratic freedom has been relegated to a privilege that can be taken away on the whim of a police officer."

Two years ago, the protestors and their coaches were searched for nearly two hours and forced back to London under a heavy police escort "to prevent a breach of the peace."  The police argued that this was justified because the protestors were, in their view, "well-armed".

However, in the original High Court ruling in February, Lord Justice May commented that, "for practical purposes none of the articles seized were to be regarded as offensive.  Two pairs of scissors would not make much impression on the perimeter fencing of the air base."

John Halford, the solicitor at Bindman and Partners representing the group, has said that, "the police action in detaining these protestors was and remains a grotesque abuse of power.  That this right can be taken away when no crime had been committed and on the flimsiest of pretexts lays the foundation of a police state."

Jesse Schust, one of the coach passengers, said: "It is particularly ironic that the police violated our human rights by detaining us, when we sought to demonstrate against an illegal war that has devastated Iraq and left over 100,000 dead."

 

June 2005

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