New Internationalist

Guilty until proven innocent

On 26 March more than 200 people were arrested in London following the protests against public spending cuts. Of those arrested, 145 were charged with varying offences relating to the black bloc action, Trafalgar Square and the UK Uncut Fortnum & Mason occupation. The experiences in custody of those arrested are disturbing to say the least, and the story doesn’t end after 24 hours in a small, cold, dirty cell. All 145 people charged were eventually released and bailed to return either to a police station or to court, but their extrajudicial punishment has started early. When released from a police station on bail you do not pay like you would in the US, but there are conditions set on that bail. These conditions often come down to the interpretation by the custody officer processing each defendant and frequently remove the right to protest and significantly breach human rights.

Police up close

For those arrested at Fortnum & Mason, the bail conditions were designed to prevent them attending forthcoming protests; they were deemed to be trouble-makers, despite being described by Chief Inspector Clare Clark as ‘nonviolent’ and ‘sensible’ and their detention and arrest being questioned by a Chief Superintendent outside. Most of them are not allowed to enter large areas of London, including ‘travelling through on public transport’ for specific dates (i.e. 29 April and 1 May), or for a period of time covering those dates, or, in the most extreme circumstances, from their point of release until their court date, a period of more than a month. This constitutes a significant breach of their right to freedom of movement and right to peaceful protest (freedom of expression). The justification for people being banned from entering the centre of London varies from the outright political ‘so as not to get involved with planned future protest’ to the vague ‘so as not to interfere with/obstruct justice’, to the baffling ‘to prevent interference with ongoing investigation’. The order to charge the protesters was made by Scotland Yard, as were the orders to seize clothing, mobile phones and impose these sorts of bail conditions. The variation in treatment and conditions demonstrates the influence over what is used as extrajudicial punishment that comes down to the custody officer at each police station.

Protesting against the spending cuts

Bail in the UK is governed under the Bail Act 1976, under which provisions are made that bail may be granted to a person arrested for an offence and conditions imposed under s.3A (5):

(5) Where a constable grants bail to a person no conditions shall be imposed under subsections (4), (5), (6) or (7) of section 3 of this Act unless it appears to the constable that it is necessary to do so for the purpose of preventing that person from –
(a) failing to surrender to custody, or
(b) committing an offence while on bail, or
(c) interfering with witnesses or otherwise obstructing the course of justice, whether in relation to himself or any other person.

The UK police have been using bail conditions as a means of extrajudicial punishment and as a method to prevent protest for decades; this is certainly not the first time it has happened to me. In 2007, after abseiling from Westminster Bridge to hang a Free Tibet banner, I, along with a number of others, was banned from attending the Olympic Torch Relay protests. Members of the climate change movement are only too aware of the way in which bail conditions are used as a political statement and punishment as much as to prevent further offences or interference with investigations – often more so. Before the Camp for Climate Action at Heathrow, dozens of people were arrested and given bail conditions that prevented them from attending the camp. Following the Kingsnorth Climate Camp in 2009, one protester was arrested on suspicion of assaulting a police officer. Their bail conditions seemed unreasonably strict, given the nature of the arrest. They were given a very restrictive curfew and an ankle tag, and bailed to return in a few months. When the bail date drew nearer an application was made and granted to extend the bail period pending ‘further investigation’. This continued for a year and a half. This is tantamount to extrajudicial sentencing to 18 months’ house arrest without trial, without representation and on suspicion of an offence as yet not proven. This is not an exceptional case; the climate movement is littered with stories such as this.

Protest against the spending cuts

The problem with these sorts of cases comes down to this: despite their talk of defending the right to peaceful protest, the police believe protests are inherently illegal and need policing. Therefore, anyone arrested in conjunction with a protest is guilty and that is that. The Territorial Support Group exists to police protests or ‘public order situations’. They know that the charges brought against protesters often don’t stand up in a court, so they impose restrictive and oppressive bail conditions as punishment, like a playground bully giving his victim a sly kick in the ribs before fleeing the teacher to escape punishment.

It is true to suggest that in some cases there may be a reason to prevent a person interfering with an investigation or fleeing the country. If, however, we truly believe in the right to peaceful protest and in the presumption of innocence, then the use of bail conditions as extrajudicial punishment, and to prevent a person exercising their right to peaceful protest, has no place in our legal system or our society.

All photos by Matthew Wilkinson under a CC Licence.

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