milan rai and maya evans outside court
court two is a large square space, lit through opaque glass ceiling panels as well as eight creamy glass hanging globe lights. wall aircon/heating systems roar quite loudly making it difficult for the public to make out what is said. there is much woodwork - with mucky brown veneer on the benches, room dividers and desks. sombre green carpet tiles cover the floor and some of the walls.
before the case began, the defence barrister, maya sikand, announced that she had only just been given a skeleton argument from the crown prosecution in response to her own skeleton argument, and so would need more time to look at it properly. it was agreed by all parties though that as the facts of the case were not in dispute, they could be heard today and legal argument could if necessary be postponed to a future time.
the first witness was pc wood, who was the arresting officer. he described how he had attended a briefing at charing x police station at 8am on the 25th october last year. the police had had dealings with milan rai and were expecting him to perform a remembrance ceremony in whitehall in defiance of the socpa legislation where he would be reading out the names of dead civilians in iraq. this protest was part of a world-wide project to mark the anniversary of the 'lancet' medical journal report that estimated the number of civilian deaths in iraq at 100,000. the project involved 100 groups worldwide each ringing a bell a thousand times and reading out the name of an iraqi civilian casualty for each toll. milan's organisation 'justice not vengeance' were splitting their 1000 rings into four parts - these were at brighton, at northwood military base, opposite downing street, and in hastings. the police had decided to send two sergeants and 12 officers in two vans to police this demonstration and arrest mr. rai and any other participants.
milan first met up with maya evans in trafalgar square that morning, and then went to whitehall to greet an 'observer' he was expecting. police were already there, and pc shannon, a later witness, warned the two men that there would be 'zero tolerance' of any demonstration. milan went back to fetch maya, and they decided to proceed without the bells as they didn't want them confiscated before the hastings vigil later that day. so, maya and milan stood in the 'demo pen' opposite downing street, with two placards in front of them and a4-sized placards hung by string around their necks. they began reciting the names of the dead (including british soldiers killed in iraq) at intervals. there were no other participants. no leaflets were given out. there was no megaphone. there was little movement.
pc shannon warned them that they were committing offences under the socpa act and he gave them 10 minutes to leave the area. milan informed him that he had no intention of leaving. at 9.42am, milan and maya were arrested.
maya became the first person to appear in court under the act and her case was championed in several national newspapers including the independent and the daily mail. she was found guilty, given a conditional discharge and told to pay £200 costs. milan's case has taken much longer to come to court because police didn't finally charge him until 19th january. they claimed there was some problem over cctv footage, but none was used in court and it was clear he was not going to dispute the facts of the case anyway.
witness pc mcnally told us he was an 'events and operations officer' at charing cross, and stated that he had known about the demonstration from calls that milan had made to the office, as well as information from "open source internet sites". his claim was that because of the internet postings, they had no idea how many people might turn up, despite assurances from mr. rai that he expected no more than five in total. the magistrate, nicholas evans, asked what open source internet sites were, and mcnally name checked INDYMEDIA and SCHNEWS. under further cross-examination though, the copper couldn't be sure on which site he had seen any info, and plumped for indymedia as a guess.
pc shannon took the box and we had to listen to all the facts from his perspective one more time before hearing from the next witness.
pc ian scott said he was going to tell the 'troof and nuffin but the troof', and then told us about phone conversations he'd had with milan prior to the demonstration. he explained how his job was to send out a 'form 3175a' to would-be demonstrators as part of an 'introductory pack' when they enquired about protesting in the designated zone.
nicholas evans studied the introductory pack for some time, his spectacles teetering on the end of his nose as his owl-like face registered concentration on the documents. he asked whether scott had looked at any of the internet sites, and the policeman replied that they had looked at, downloaded, and filed a page from 'protest.net' on the 25th (the day of the demo). the judge further questioned him: had milan furnished the police with all the info required by the form other than his address and his signature? yes, and ; if milan had provided all this information in written form with an address and a signature, would the demo have been authorised without restriction? yes.
next, the prosecution read out milan's own witness statement as recorded by police. this took ages, added very little new information, and we all got a bit sleepy. the judge sat quietly, white handkerchief poking in a jauntily untidy fashion from the breast pocket of his grey chalk-stripe suit jacket, took off his spectacles, at times closed his eyes, had his hands clasped prayer-like in front of his face and almost seemed to drift off. his attention was awakened by the section in which milan had stated to arresting officers that the article on 'protest.net' seemed to be based on his own indymedia piece, but was not authored by milan himself. the indymedia report had been a news announcement, both publicising the vigil, and also warning people of the unauthorised nature of the event and the high risk of arrest.
milan himself took the stand next. he told how he was the founder of the organisation 'justice not vengeance', formed after september 11 to oppose both al-qaeda-type terrorism, and the military response to it. the organisation was non-violent and worked through meetings, the website, publications, demonstrations and vigils to spread information and awareness. he explained the nature and the reasons for the demo on the 25th and went through the phone-calls to charing x he'd made, and then re-iterated the events of that day from his own perspective. the magistrate asked him why he had chosen not to comply with the socpa legislation requirements, and milan explained that at first it hadn't been an issue, but he was aware that there was a campaign against the new legislation and he felt it important not to undermine it. having had discussion with those campaign groups, there was not such an issue about this, but when faced with the reality of the forms the police had emailed to him, he just felt that they were too great an intrusion on his human rights to freedom of expression and freedom to protest, that he couldn't bring himself to fill them in. the prosecution asked him whether he had been aware of the law and he said yes. the prosecution suggested his breach had been 'flagrant' and he had placed 'adverts' on open-source sites to encourage others to breach the law. milan pointed out that letting people know there was a high risk of arrest could hardly be regarded as 'inticing adverts'!
so, the facts were not under dispute, and we got on to the human rights issues. nicholas evans pointed out that he had tried three previous socpa cases, and although these had been for participants rather than organisers of demos, this would have no bearing on the human rights aspect of the case. he told us that he had in all three cases found that he was powerless to interpret the law in any way other than to find the defendants guilty, but then in quite a flirty moment, he told barrister maya sikand that he had found her skeleton rather "interesting and attractive". she smiled and thanked him.
now we got into legal arguments based on case law, and with neither the bundles in front of me nor years of training as a lawyer, i can't begin to give a detailed analysis of this, but the general gist is that the defence barrister was citing previous public order cases which had reached crown or high courts, and where the judge or lord had stated that it had been within the power of the magistrate in the summary court to acquit defendants on the basis that the prosecution was not compatible with human rights law as the prosecution had been wholly disproportionate to the circumstances involved. the magistrate was concerned that if magistrates can just chuck stuff out of court on this basis, then virtually no law was safe, and that the whole basis of law being to ensure that everyone be treated equally and fairly so that they know where they stand, this could not be allowed to happen. however, it seemed the barrister had indeed picked some powerful case precedents where a law had been applied on the ground by police in a wholly disproportionate and unnecessary manner, and it was reasonable for these to cases to have been thrown out under european human rights conventions, without risking that the whole law being thrown into confusion.
the prosecution tried to make the point that public order cases were different by their very nature because they relied on police making decisions on the ground, about the behaviour and likely result of that behaviour of arrestees, but in the case of socpa the law was quite clear and left no room for interpretation. he once again suggested that milan had 'flagrantly' breached the law. by now the magistrate seemed almost swayed by the defence, and chastised the prosecution for use of the term 'flagrant'. evans pointed out that milan had 'deliberately' broken the law and had informed the police of his intention of doing so, whereas a 'flagrant' breach would have involved simply turning up on the day without any prior contact and demonstrating.
all this aside, the outcome of the day was that nicholas evans said that he had 'a lot to think about', and maya sikand and the prosecution had to iron out and respond to each other's skeleton arguments before he could reach a final verdict. he did intimate that even if milan were found guilty there would be no question of a prison sentence, but that the court should adjourn until the 12th of april at 10am when a verdict would be reached in a short session. this co-incidentally is the same day as milan's new book launch "7/7, london bombings, islam and the iraq war".