Below is a detailed report of what happened.
The protest, organised by the Congo Support Project and supported by many other groups, including NCADC and No Borders, was part of a UK-wide coordinated day of action to mark a "directions hearing" for the Country Guidance Tribunal regarding DRC asylum seekers. This is a meeting between the judge, the barristers bringing the case and the Home Office to ensure that all parties have been served with the needed information and paperwork. After this, a date for the full hearing will be set. The date of the directions hearing had been previously postponed more than once.
Since the DRC elections last year, described by most Western media as "democratic", more than 150 people have been gunned down by the security services in Bas-Congo for peacefully protesting against the election results. Hundreds more have been killed in Kinshasa in violent clashes between president Joseph Kabila's guards and forces loyal to his contender in the presidential elections, Jean-Pierre Bemba. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced by conflict in the eastern part of the country. Massacres, extra-judicial killings, forced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture and rape are endemic, while thousands continue to die each week as a result of starvation and disease.
Since 1998, the country has suffered greatly from the devastating Second Congo War (sometimes referred to as the African World War), the world's deadliest conflict since World War II, thanks to Western corporations and governments racing for the country's rich resources and supplying the fighting parties with deadly weapons. More than 3 million people have died since and, according to the United Nations, some 1000 people still die every day as a result of the conflict.
The Foreign Office is advising British nationals "not to travel at all" to eastern and north-eastern
DRC and against "all but essential travel" to the rest of the country, as it is deemed "too unstable". Yet, the Home Office continues to 'remove' Congolese asylum seekers, including children born here to Congolese parents, to a place where they risk losing their lives.
Unwisely, perhaps, the organisers of the demo had contacted the police about the demo the night before. So the police, unsurprisingly, imposed their repressive conditions and designated a tiny area for protesters on the grounds of Sandford House, behind a hedge so that it was not really visible from the street. As more and more people arrived (apparently much more than police had expected), it was obvious that they wouldn't even fit in the cordoned-off designated site. So protesters were moved from the public footpath to the entrance of Sandford House's car park, with a line of cops penning them in.
For about an hour, people kept chanting and shouting anti-Kabila and anti-deportation slogans. At one point, a car wanted to leave Sandford House (it presumably belonged to one of the staff) and the only way was through the mass. People, however, refused to give way and a couple of women sat down spontaneously, blockading the way out. The cops, of course, were quick to move them aside and clear the way for the expensive car. The same scene was repeated a while later with another car.
At one point, with people becoming more and more frustrated at not being able to move in and out of the pen, some pushing against the cops line started. More reinforcements were immediately brought in as police feared protesters would break off and move into the road. Well, they did that anyway.
Luckily for the protesters, there was a gap in the dense hedge by the car park, which the police hadn't probably noticed. So, all of a sudden, a couple of frustrated protesters escaped the pen through that gap and went and sat down in the middle of the road. In no time everyone else followed them, amid the cops' initial bewilderment.
Thus, Homer Road was blocked for about 2 hours, allegedly affecting the magistrates court and police station, across the road from Sandford House, going about their 'daily business'. All asylum interviews at Sandford House had been reportedly cancelled by the management for that day. Police only edged one side of the blockage, leaving the other end open for protesters to march and dance up and down the road.
Soon after the road blockade started, one of those who initially sat down in the middle of the road was suddenly nicked by a cop, allegedly for "obstructing the highway". Officer P. Dutton (3792) was reportedly seen by other people "punching the guy in the face". Officer Dutton had been aggressive throughout the demo and that was not his only violent encounter with protesters. For example, he repeatedly threatened to arrest two Indymedia and No Borders activists as they challenged his unlawful acts.
Another protester was arrested at the same time, for a Public Order offence, as he went to ask what was happening with the first guy being arrested. They were both taken to Solihull police station nearby. Police became more and more aggressive as people were shouting "liberte, liberte!" (freedom to the arrestees). They even brought a police dog, whose foaming barking was probably worse than its bite.
Activists managed to contact a good solicitor in Birmingham at once and the Super Attendant, quite surprisingly, agreed to help with passing over the solicitors' number to the arrestees so that they could instruct them when they are offered that service.
It was obvious by now that people were not going anywhere until the two men were freed. So more reinforcements were brought in and surrounded the protest in what is known as a "kettle". They soon managed to push people back into the car park and penned them in again, but the road remained blocked by police cars.
Around 3pm, the coach that had brought many protesters arrived to collected them, but protesters unanimously refused to leave without the two guys held at the police station. Another sit-down was was formed spontaneously in front of the coach. After some bargaining with the demo organisers, police agreed to release the two men if people started to get on the coach.
At about 3:15, one was released and it looked like the police, according to some protesters, were trying to back off their deal. Police said they needed to complete some paperwork. People still refused to leave or get on the coach until they see the other guy, too, as many of them said they did not trust the police. About 15 minutes later, the other was released and put on the coach and everyone went home.
The man arrested for "obstructing the highway" was released without charge, while the other was issued with a "penalty notice" for a Public Order offence.
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Many people have disappeared from there without warning. Sandford House is provided with a so-called short-term holding facility (STH), where people detained in the reporting centre or following 'enforcement operations' are temporarily held. Snatch squads in prison vans also operate from the Centre, forcibly snatching families and vulnerable people in dawn raids. They are subsequently taken to the STH, before being transferred to so-called Immigration Removal Centres (immigration prisons), such as Campsfield House in Oxfordshire or Yarl’s Wood in Bedfordshire. They then face the prospect of being forcibly deported back to war zones or oppressive regimes from whence they had fled.
The facility is run by Group 4 Securicor, who also run Campsfield and Oakington detention centres, and is staffed by permanent detainee custody officers with some assistance from other G4S staff. Private contractors such as G4S make huge profits out of people's misery, while delivering poor services. G4S has been repeatedly criticised by the Chief Inspector of Prisons for “settled misery” in detention, the lack of information on individual cases and that no information is provided to detainees about the availability of legal aid and the like.
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