Tuesday, 6 March 2007

End of Dissent?

Is legitimate dissent still possible in the UK?

Read the major extract – below – from George Monbiot’s article in today’s Guardian (http://tinyurl.com/3crmy7) and be VERY AFRAID!

“If any of you doubt that protest is being criminalised in the United Kingdom, take a look at an injunction posted at www.epuk.org [CalumCarr Note:For a pdf download of the injunction (HQO7X00505) visit: http://tinyurl.com/yumqav.] Granted in the high court by the Honourable Mr Justice Calvert-Smith, it forbids the people of a village in Oxfordshire from "coming to, remaining on, trespassing or conducting any demonstrations or protesting or other activities" on the claimant's land.

As this land is also the villagers' most treasured local amenity, it means they have to abandon any effective means of trying to protect their quality of life. If not, they could end up with five years behind bars.

On second thoughts, don't look at the injunction - it will turn you to stone. A cunning clause ensures that it also applies "to any other person who has been given notice of the terms of this order". In fact, you have probably already been injuncted by reading the first paragraph of this article. So, if you value your liberty, you can't now go near Thrupp Lake.

The lake is the haunt of kingfishers, otters and even rarer wildlife, such as Cetti's warblers and water rails. It is the place where local people walk their dogs, swim, fish and picnic. But for the giant energy company RWE npower, which runs Didcot power station, it is the next dump for its pulverised fly ash, a byproduct of burning coal. The company intends to empty the lake, line it with clay, and pour in at least 60,000 tonnes of grey slurry - the fly ash mixed with water - then wait for years until it solidifies before attempting "remediation". Fly ash typically contains lead, mercury, arsenic and cadmium.

The project, in other words, is an abomination. The people of Radley village, as anyone would, have tried to stop this dumping. They have marched and demonstrated and photographed the cutting down of trees and the destruction of habitats. And now they have been confronted by one of the most brutal instruments on the statute book.

The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 is, on the face of it, a sensible piece of legislation defending people from stalkers. But when it was drafted, several of us warned that it failed to distinguish between genuine harassment and legitimate protest. Harassment includes "alarming the person or causing the person distress", which could mean almost anything: you can alarm someone, for example, by telling them that pulverised fly ash contains mercury. It requires a "course of conduct" to be pursued, but this means nothing more than doing something twice. If you take two pictures of workers felling trees, that counts. Conduct also includes speech.

Worse still, the legislation was the first of several "behaviour acts" which blur the distinction between civil and criminal offences. The victim of the course of conduct may take a civil claim to the high court. On the basis of far less evidence than a criminal case requires, the court can grant an injunction against the defendant. If the defendant then breaks that injunction - by continuing to talk to the people he is seeking to dissuade, or to march or picket or protest - he then commits a criminal offence, carrying up to five years' imprisonment.

We warned that the legislation had the makings of a new sedition law. No one took us seriously. But the first three people to be arrested under the act were peaceful protesters. Since then it has been used repeatedly to stifle what should be legitimate dissent.

The injunction was granted on the grounds that the site's security guards were feeling threatened by the protesters. Many of the guards are former members of the armed forces. In the photos I have seen they wear black face masks. They allege that protesters have spoken threateningly to them and photographed them. I don't know whether or not this is true, but the guards claim that this has made them feel scared and intimidated for themselves or their families. It seems to me that the security company has hired a bunch of right cissies. But all the act requires is a judgment that the men felt "alarmed" or "distressed".

So an instrument designed to prevent intimidation in turn intimidates. As well as being forbidden to step on to the land they have walked and played on for years, the villagers and other protesters are forbidden to loiter "within five yards of any of the protected persons (whether on foot or in vehicles) in the vicinity of Radley Lakes". In other words, should one of the security guards approach them, they must step well back if they want to avoid the possibility of five years inside. The injunction has thrown a great bucket of cold water over their attempts to protect the neighbourhood.

At first I thought these uses were an accidental product of bad drafting. Now I am not so sure. The law company serving the writ, Lawson-Cruttenden, describes itself as "the market leader in obtaining ground-breaking injunctions on behalf of individuals and corporations who have been the subject of harassment by direct action protest groups". It also boasts that it "assisted in the drafting of the ... Protection from Harassment Act 1997". Are such apparent conflicts of interest normal? Did Lawson-Cruttenden know that the act would support a lucrative line of business? Did Michael Howard, the home secretary at the time, know that companies like this would use the law like a new riot act?”

Most will agree that the state needs to deal with domestic terrorism but, despite the dangers of the legislation being highlighted, our parliamentarians allowed this drastically over-broad and dangerous legislation to be passed.

As Monbiot says, you and I are now covered by this injunction although we have had no contact with the Court, npower, the various protest groups or even the villagers – scary!

It appears that if you want to protest, for example, at a hospital facing closure or outside a supermarket, lawyers can obtain an injunction provided they have witness statements showing (or purporting to show) that the witnesses were distressed by the behaviour of the protestors – very, very scary!

This is Britain today and tomorrow ….. unless we protest.

Additional Information

For another good article on this case visit Indymedia (http://tinyurl.com/yt58mn).

For more information about this case visit the following sites: http://www.epuk.org ; http://www.saveradleylakes.org.uk/

For a list of all the injunctions granted under The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 visit NETCU - The National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit - at http://tinyurl.com/yumqav. I wasn’t sure when I came across this website if this group were extremists or preventers of extremism. In fact they are preventers: NETCU “provides the police service of England and Wales and other enforcement agencies with tactical advice and guidance on policing domestic extremism and associated criminality.” I don’t know how many of these injunctions were associated with genuine extremism or with legitimate dissent and protest.

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