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full court report on socpa trial and mysterious side issues

rikki | 12.01.2006 02:00 | Free Spaces | Repression | London

at bow street magistrate's court today, after three days of evidence and deliberation, magistrate nicholas evans found the four defendants guilty. they were charged with participating in an unauthorised demonstration within the designated area around parliament on the day the act came into force, the 1st august last year. one defendant was additionally found guilty of willfully obstructing police in the course of their duty.

on the 1st august last year, the new 'serious organised crime and police act' (socpa), and specifically section 132 banning unauthorised demonstration in a designated area within roughly 1km of parliament, came into force.

the stop the war coalition (who are hardly known for their past readiness to break the law or encourage direct action in the anti-war movement) had called for a demo in parliament square on that monday, backed by the muslim association of britain and other groups. the demonstration was attended by between 100 and 200 people including from the coalition, lindsey german and jeremy corbyn mp, as well as cherie blair's sister lauren booth.

in court over the past three days, evidence emerged that police inspector cornish had been in touch with two 'organisers' from the stop the war coalition prior to the event. on the day, at noon, supervisors held a meeting at new scotland yard where they heard of ongoing negotiations between commanders and people from stop the war in parliament square.

at 3.20 police moved into the crowd to arrest some participants. witnesses spoke of overhearing police discuss they needed a quota of six, and after 3 were arrested a policeman was heard to say, "that's three, we need another three". there is plenty of photographic evidence on indymedia and elsewhere that there were indeed six people arrested, but there are two mysterious facts to emerge. first, not one of those arrested were known members of the organising stop the war coalition, and second, a man who was arrested and put in a police van has disappeared from the record, so only five arrests were reported and only five were charged. there is a separate and ongoing thread about this mystery man at, so i don't intend to dwell on it here.

the police halted proceedings on peace campaigner ann clancy on compassionate grounds as she is very ill. this leaves four defendants who were in court this week. all were accused under the section 132 of participating in an unauthorised demonstration, and one of them was additionally accused of willfully obstructing a police officer in the course of their duty. all four had pleaded not guilty and the case was heard at bow street in front of magistrate nicholas evans.

courtroom three is at the top of the building and has seen much better days. it is a dim oppressive room with dark veneered walls and partitions, dark brown carpet tiles, 8 sixties-style light fittings sunk into a white ceiling, and three opaque windows on the left letting in little natural light. previous defendants and observers have scrawled graffiti in the wooden veneer destroying any former glory it might have had. sombre signs tell us not to film, take photos, use mobiles, eat or drink, and there are further instructions for witnesses. the ancient boiler system had us all freezing on tuesday and boiling on wednesday. the magistrate peered over his spectacles in a disdainful manner for most of the proceedings, his finely topiaried silver-grey hair glinting in the down light illuminating the 'dieu et mon droit' crest behind him. (erm, sorry, couldn't resist. i'll get on with the plot!)

on day one we were introduced to the four defendants, there were several police witnesses describing the circumstances leading up to the arrests, and there was quite a lot of watching of police footage of the day. the arresting officers were all deployed from forest gate station and some were instructed to walk through the crowd and warn people that they may be committing an offence liable to arrest under the new act. they were also were handing out leaflets stating the same, and on the reverse of these leaflets were maps of the designated area around parliament. apparently one bright spark asked whether copyright permission had been sought for use of this map, and later officers were refusing to hand out leaflets as they had been withdrawn on copyright issues. despite this, it remains clear that quite a few sheets were handed out, and many of the protesters had been warned.

day two began with more film including footage from the cameras on the treasury building and palace of westminster. these cameras panned around and zoomed in on individuals with extraordinary detail.

one of the defendants, alwyn simpson, offered no evidence, as he accepted that the demonstration had been declared illegal and although not setting out to be arrested, he was prepared to challenge the legislation as incompatible with civil and human rights won over centuries by common people. it was particularly poignant for him, as he was aware that 1st august is a public holiday, emancipation day, in jamaica, in celebration of the official release of slaves in the west indies in the 19th century. and yet on that day he found himself incarcerated for doing no more than being present at a wholly peaceful demonstration in the sunshine in front of the british parliament, the so-called mother of parliaments!

the other three defendants chose to give evidence.

steve blum, who has been a teacher for 26 years until being forced into unemployment by ill health, spoke of how he had come alone to see what was going on, having heard of the demo in a flier and an email. he was on the edges of the square for some time when the police were handing out leaflets, and he was about to leave at around 3.15 when he thought he heard jeremy corbyn mp speaking on the megaphone, so he stayed a while longer to try and hear. but then amid quite some confusion, as many police swooped in on the crowd, he heard a voice behind him saying "we'll have that one, that one, and that one" and the next moment he was being manhandled and arrested by two officers. he claimed he had not received any warnings, and had not seen any of the police fliers. he acceded that he knew the protest had been called against the socpa law, but that he had no knowledge of whether the demo was actually authorised or not.

aqil shaer, a currently unemployed electrical engineer, told how he had been born in palestine, forced to move with his family to kuwait because of the 1967 war
and then in 1986 came to britain where he now has full nationality. he spoke movingly of his passionate support of the palestinian cause since the uprising of 2001, and how he has regularly staged protests as a lone activist in front of parliament and downing street since that time, as well as attending the weekly palestine solidarity protests outside marks and spencers at marble arch for many years. he told how he was under the impression that 1st august was the last day on which protest would be allowed outside parliament, and he brought his 'freedom for palestine' banner and megaphone for one final fling before the new law took effect. during the afternoon, nine people used his microphone, including corbyn, german and booth - in fact jeremy corbyn was on the mic moments before the arrests began. aqil claimed (and there was no video evidence to the contrary) that he had not been given a leaflet. he also claimed that he had not heard a verbal warning, and although one video appeared to show a clearly audible warning in his vicinity, this was from a camera and focussed microphone held slightly above the crowd and does not in my opinion prove conclusively that he would have heard the warning amongst ambient noise himself. he described how as police suddenly surrounded him he felt intimidated, and so he began to try to pick up his bag and begin to move away, but then he was suddenly grabbed by several officers and taken away to the waiting vans.

towards the end of day two, aqil's solicitors called a witness for aqil in the form of 78 year old veteran activist eric leavey. he spoke movingly and eloquently about brian haw's long-standing demonstration in the square and how this law is an attempt to stifle the right to protest against the genocide occurring in our name. eric, who visited basra as part of the human shield operation, spoke of his own experience of many previous demonstrations where if the police felt some public order or other act was being infringed they would issue warnings clearly by loud hailer instructing people to leave the area. he had never come across the quiet leafletting and individual warnings before and he also stated that he had not been given a leaflet himself and had not been issued any verbal warning. when asked whether he believed the demonstration was authorised or not, he pointed out that seeing such fine upstanding citizens as mp corbyn and lauren booth, there, and organisers like lindsey german from the stop the war coalition (an organisation not known for any previous illegal activity), he felt it perfectly reasonable to assume that the protest was legal. he finished his evidence by bursting into an uplifting and moving anti-war song (one he had sung at the protest), and despite requests for him to stop he continued, raised applause from the dock and public bench, and even brought the first smile to the magistrate's face that i had seen in two days.

on the third day, we heard from more witnesses that they hadn't received police warnings, and the final defendant maria gallastegui took the stand.

maria works as a school bus driver, but for several years now she has worked closely with brian haw (the man who has spent nearly five years outside parliament in a lone protest with his numerous placards reminding mps and others of the genocide visited on the children and innocent population of iraq in the name of 'freedom' and 'justice'. he is also widely thought to be the reason this section 132 clause was brought into existence, in order to clear the pavement and the war criminals' conscience of his eternal blot. but the attempt to silence him was thwarted by the high court decision, made just three days before august 1st, that his protest was immune as the new act could not be applied retrospectively and he had been there since 2001). the court heard how she has supported him in many ways, co-ordinating others to make sure that the square was never left unattended when brian had court appearances or food and ablution breaks. she herself stayed in the square when brian was in hospital. she looked after his welfare and made sure he had an opportunity to have regular showers and clean changes of underwear etc. she made sure that he ate either by arranging cover for him to leave his space, or by bringing him food. in 2005 when brian ran for parliament, she was his campaign agent. all this meant that she was under the impression that she too would be immune from the new legislation as she was clearly part of his protest.

on the afternoon of the 1st, maria came to help organise an ongoing bbc west midlands film of brian which was happening at the time, but she obviously became interested in the nearby stop the war coalition demonstration, and she wandered around at times, and clapped some of the speeches. it was a very hot afternoon, and she spotted her 82 year old friend, peace campaigner peggie preston, in some discomfort. so maria located a chair for her, and picked up a placard to hold over peggy's head as protection from the sunlight. this was clearly visible on police evidence videos. at no point can she be seen being given one of the infamous (and copyright-busting) police leaflets, nor was she given a verbal warning. aware of the implications of the new law, and knowing that the stop the war coalition had organised the demonstration, she fully expected some of THEM, easily spotted wearing black gags and holding banners, to be the targets of any police arrest, but as police suddenly closed in around another of her friends, aqil shaer, she ran forward to warn him that something was up. within thirty seconds though, they had made their move and three officers started to manhandle aqil. fearing for his welfare and safety, in the heat of the moment she put her arms round him from behind and tried to stop him from being dragged away by the police in what she viewed was an illegal arrest, coming as it appeared without warning or reason. she was arrested herself and charged with illegal protest, and also with willful obstruction.

peggie preston was then called as a witness. she spoke about how she had been active in peace campaigns visiting both vietnam and iraq, and she backed up maria's evidence about the bbc documentary on brian and about the sunshine and use of the placard to shade her. with peggie's testimony, the submission of evidence was concluded and the court moved on the legal arguments.

the 'learned friends' agreed to present and agree on the 'facts' of each case first, and then should the magistrate find that those facts indicated guilt, then they could move on to discuss the 'skeleton arguments' concerning the interpretation of the law within human rights legislation as required under european law.

steve blum's counsel proposed that as even one of the constables had admitted that he couldn't hear properly in the general noise, it was unfair to assume that steve himself had been aware of any warnings. he also tried to raise the issue that within the terms of the act, there is a statutory defence that steve could have 'reasonably believed the demo was authorised', but the magistrate gave this short shrift pointing out that this defence had not been alluded to or shown in steve's submission and so could not now be counted. in the magistrate's opinion steve had only shown that he was reasonably UNaware that there was NO authorisation, and that this was not the same thing in law. mr. evans was of the opinion that within the terms of the law it was sufficient to prove that any of the defendants were 'taking part' in the demo, and whether they knew it was illegal or not was immaterial.

aqil shaer's counsel suggested that aqil genuinely believed that this was the last day of legal protest before the act could be enforced, and since he had not been given a leaflet, and the verbal warning apparently given him may not have been heard, he had no information to the contrary. indeed his experience of previous stop the war coalition demos was that they always negotiated and liaised with the police, and so it was reasonable for him to assume that the protest had been authorised. from the moment he finally became aware that the police were intent on arrests, he was attempting to gather his bags and leave, but there was only 30 seconds between this warning and his arrest.

alwyn simpson's counsel did not argue that he was unaware of the legality or otherwise, preferring to wait for human rights arguments to be considered.

maria gallastegui's counsel relied on the evidence that she had always been part of brian haw's demo, and that watching, clapping speakers, and walking around did not constitute 'taking part' in the stwc demo. as she hadn't heard warnings, when she saw aqil, rather than stwc people, being targeted by officers, she worried for his safety, did not believe the police were acting according to their duty, and intervened in what she felt was an illegal action that they were engaged in.

the magistrate spent little time considering these submissions before making his deliberations on the 'facts' of the case. he started off by reminding us that the 'serious organised crime and police act' of 2005 brought in legislation under section 132 along with commencement orders taking effect from 1st august that made it a crime to participate in a protest within the designated area around parliament that had not received permission from the commissioner. he pointed out that the introduction of this law was known to many, and that in particular it was known to the stop the war coalition who had planned a protest within the area on the first day of that act. he said that therefore the demo was clearly unauthorised and in fact taking place in protest at the act. he said that there was a flier that the stwc member, lindsey german, had put her name too, and that she had appeared as a convenor in a video on the stwc website. so in his mind, the question was simply whether the four defendants HAD taken part in this demonstration. he suggested that there were many people there that summer afternoon who would have been proud to admit to taking part, but that with the exception of alwyn simpson who offered no evidence, the others were "wriggling out".

he spoke of steve blum and described the circumstances how steve had come to the square aware of a demonstration and admitting to being against the new law, but along with the other two defendants being "insufficiently curious" to discover what was going on when the police entered the crowd talking to them and distributing leaflets. the magistrate concluded that he was ENTIRELY satisfied that steve WAS taking part in the demonstration as steve knew the reason for the gathering and had made an effort to be there.

considering aqil shaer, mr. evans said that he could not accept that nine people had used aqil's megaphone, speaking about the new law, and that aqil remained unaware that this was an unauthorised demonstration. he also felt that the video evidence where we heard a verbal warning clearly being given by police near aqil meant that he must have heard it too. he said that he accepted that aqil was both a key supporter of brian haw, and also a lone protester in his own right, but felt that it wouldn't have mattered if he "supported rupert bear", he was still there on that day as part of the anti-socpa demonstration.

about maria, once again he agreed that she was a brian haw supporter and looked after the protest site when brian had to leave and so on. he also accepted that she may have come on the 1st to take part in the bbc film. but he said that brian's protest faced parliament, and she was seen on the green, listening to speeches, holding a placard, applauding the speakers, and so in his consideration was clearly 'taking part' in the stwc demo.

in summing up then, he stated that he was minded to find all the defendants guilty on all the charges based on the facts alone, and the court adjourned for lunch before hearing human rights submissions.

after lunch, mr. blum's counsel began by submitting that as the court was a public body, under recent domestic and european law, it has a duty to ensure that it interprets laws in a manner which is not incompatible with human rights legislation, and in this case particularly with articles 10 and 11 regarding freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. while these are not wholly unrestricted rights it is the duty of the court where possible to positively ensure freedom rather than simply negatively prevent interference to these freedoms. in previous case law, it has been shown that any restrictions to these rights can only occur where for instance a clear and present danger required it. it has also been established that any restrictions must be not only relevant and sufficient, but the reason for any restriction must be established and their breadth narrowly constricted. even pressing social needs for restriction must be interpreted according to each individual case.

the magistrate interrupted pointing out that he doesn't have the power to strike down an act, and this must be left to a higher court. but counsel argued that the act could be interpreted in such a way that an offence was only committed under it if there were some sort of additional crime such as breach of the peace or obstruction of the highway. the magistrate felt this would amount to interpreting the act in some ad hoc way, and went on to clarify that if a demonstrator were refused permission to protest, or given unreasonable restrictions, then there would be a "jolly good human rights argument", but simply being required to request permission was not in itself any infringement of rights, as that permission would always be given, unless there were reasonable grounds for it not to be. there was more to and fro argument, but basically neither side got much further and the magistrate was not going to be moved.

the counsel acting for mr. simpson and ms. gallastegui pointed out that under the act, the commissioner has to give permission for any demonstration that requests it, but that he can impose conditions under section 134 to avoid things like hindrance to people working in parliament, obstruction to persons entering or leaving parliament, risk of serious public disorder, risk to safety of the public and so on. it is clear therefore that these are the ills that the act was seeking to prevent. he argued that in previous case law, due notice had to be taken of the 'underlying thrust' of the legislation in regarding its compatibility with human rights, and in the case of the afternoon of the 1st august it was clear to all that there was no likelihood of any of these 'ills' occurring. the magistrate came back with a scenario of a peaceful and quiet demonstration which he then suggested became a hindrance to parliament when (AND I QUOTE HIM!!) "some rastafarians enter happy clapping mode" (i kid you not!!) - he asked whether it would be reasonable for the demo to suddenly become illegal for all participating in it?

the defence solicitor then moved on to the situation of maria and the fact that, as she had always been part of brian's demo, she should be exempt from this law. but mr. evans once again gave short shrift by saying that on this particular occasion he was satisfied that she was taking part in the unauthorised demonstration.

mr. shaer's counsel didn't have much to add other than a similar argument that aqil's demonstration that day was in no way different from the demos he had been making as a lone protester and with brian for many years and so could not be troubled retrospectively by the new act, but once again mr. evans said he was satisfied aqil had been part of the stwc demo.

so, (and if you've read this far, thanks and well done!) to the magistrate's summing up and verdict.

he quoted the new act and affirmed that it was now a criminal act to organise, or take part in, or to carry on by oneself, an unauthorised demonstration in the designated area. the act obliged a would-be protestor to seek prior authority. he agreed that this requirement interfered with the convention's rights, but, given that the commissioner MUST give permission to the protestor, it didn't represent any disproportionate infringement. that is to say, that as long as there is no unreasonable condition or restriction on the protest, there is no disproportionate curtailment of freedom.

in the case of the 1st august, it was clear that people were understandably upset by the new legislation, and they chose to demonstrate against it in an unauthorised protest. mr. evans felt clear that all four defendants did attend this unauthorised demo and take part, and that maria did wilfully obstruct the police who were in the course of their duty. therefore he would find that the defendants were all guilty of the charges brought, and that this interpretation of the law of the land as deemed by parliament would not be incompatible with human rights.

the defence then submitted their mitigations, pointing out cases where defendants were on limited income and reminding the court that there was no violence, no resistance to arrest, and in most cases no previous convictions. one of the defendants had an unspent conditional discharge for a minor public order offence.

after a short interval the sentences were passed.

on the socpa offences there were three 12-month conditional discharges of which two had to pay £150 costs, and the third (mr. simpson who had not presented evidence) only £50 costs. because of the unspent conditional discharge, the fourth defendant had to pay £100 fine for the previous public order offence, £100 for the new socpa offence, plus the £150 costs (ouch!!). for the obstruction offence, maria had to pay an additional £100 fine.

that's the end of the court report, but i'd like (for anyone that got this far!) to re-iterate a whole sideline issue that emerged over the three days.

in his deliberations about the 'facts' of the case, the magistrate stated that lindsey german's name appeared on the flier for the demo and that she spoke on the video on the stwc website. in his evidence, inspector cornish said he had spoken to two 'organisers' from the stwc prior to the demonstration. another police witness spoke of a meeting at new scotland yard at noon where commanders spoke of 'negotiations' with stwc organisers at the square. the stwc called the demo. stwc participants were clearly identifiable from the black gags they were wearing and the banners they had brought. many of them spoke on the microphone, including jeremy corbyn mp and lindsey german who are both on the stwc steering committee.

section 132 of the socpa act differentiates between organisers and participants of unauthorised demos, with much stiffer penalties for the organisers. and yet, on that afternoon there were six arrests clearly witnessed and not one of those were of members, affiliates, or organisers from the stop the war coalition. instead we had three more or less random arrests, one targeted arrest of the man (well known to police as a long time campaigner for palestinian rights) who had brought his own megaphone, and the arrest of brian haw's close associate and supporter, maria gallastegui.

mysteriously, one of those arrested and put in a police van then disappeared from the record. police claim to have no knowledge of him. what was his 'get out' card? possible explanations might be that he was some sort of 'agent provocateur' - he was standing very near the megaphone throughout the half an hour or so leading up to the arrests. alternatively, he was in some other way in cahoots with the police. or possibly, he was a poor unfortunate that was wanted for other charges, or for extradition, or deportation, or even "extraordinary rendition". i think we must do our best to find out who this person was and what happened to him. see for more on this.

the next socpa case will be heard next week on the 18th at bow street, and 'picnicker mark' will be defending himself in court. after that, the arrestees from sunday 7th august will be in court from the 23rd. and on 22nd feb, lone demonstrator barbara tucker (who held up a banner 'i am not the serious organised criminal' outside parliament just before xmas) will appear in court. in the meantime, it is likely that today's defendants will be appealing against their convictions.

further info can be found at



Regarding the missing protestor...

12.01.2006 17:49

The arrest, one picture of many
The arrest, one picture of many

Cop on the right
Cop on the right

Cop on the left
Cop on the left

Lots of us saw him taken away by police, yet Rikki says the police deny knowledge of him.
Here's a shot of him being removed, zooming in a bit gives us the arresting officers numbers.
Surely there is a case for the police to answer? If they continue to deny any knowledge then we'd be effectively saying they "disappeared" him, a conclusion I certainly don't want to come to.
Someone must know who he is - understandably you may not want to post to a public site, but please e-mail me if you can confirm that he's safe.

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