last thursday, two people were found guilty at westminster magistrates court under section 128 of the serious organised crime and police act (socpa), which creates a criminal offence of trespass on certain 'designated' sites. the convictions were related to a banner drop from scaffolding at the front of parliament during the only debate there has ever been about the war in afghanistan.
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last november, maria and seamus managed to confound security, and despite injuring themselves on the very sharp spikes at the top of the fences, they entered the grounds of parliament, ran across to the scaffolding at the front of the house, climbed up and unfurled various banners. after negotiation with the police and security, they managed to remain there for a full 26 hours.
the event was covered at the time on london indymedia, in a series of posts which included first-hand photos and reports from the protestors themselves sent while they were still occupying the front of parliament.
the court case took place in the tiny court 8 at the top of the building, with only one witness from the police as well as the two accused. it was heard by district judge elizabeth roscoe.
during the morning, we heard from detective constable matthews (from counter terrorism command at scotland yard) about the interviews he had with the two protestors after their arrest.
the interviews took place at charing cross police station, and perhaps unwisely given her tired and injured state, maria had elected to talk freely without a lawyer. dc matthews was asked about this, but he assured the court that in all his years in counter-terrorism, interviewing suspected terrorists perhaps thousands of times, he of course would never have any hesitation in stopping an interview if he thought for one minute that the suspect might be over-tired. so maria, with wounded feet, no medical assistance, and no sleep for more than 26 hours, was questioned, without a lawyer present, about her family, her background, her previous employment and means, as well as about the protest itself.
when maria took the stand, she described how with recent opinion polls showing 83% public support for the withdrawal of troops, she had hoped to influence politicians and policy-makers attending first a committee meeting, and then the first ever debate in the house on the war in afghanistan.
the court heard how her dealings with the authorities had been polite, and that despite an obvious opportunity to disrupt the course of parliament, that had not been her aim. asked why she felt the need to protest within the grounds of the palace of westminster, she explained that although it was clearly not an easy place to get to, it was effectively just another building, but that as it was the only debate on the war it was clearly the most important place to reflect public opinion, as it seemed that the majority of the 650 MPs were unlikely to do so.
maria pointed out that the democratic process she was accused of disrupting, was far from democratic, with only a handful of politicians even turning up to sit through the debate, and hundreds voting at the end according to party whips' commands, rather than conscience or public opinion.
the prosecution made much of the fact that maria was a 'full-time' protestor, and that her peace strike 'boxes' and banners opposite the gates of parliament might have already influenced any politicians they were going to. the suggestion was an attempt to undermine the notion that she 'needed' to do this further protest.
the content of one of the banners was also brought up, a large 'squatter's rights' banner, suggesting that the protest had 'occupied' the scaffolding and could not be removed without civil proceedings. the prosecuter tried to suggest that the protestors weren't serious about the war motive , and were taking the opportunity to campaign for squatting rights too!
seamus then took the stand. his original interview (with a lawyer) was a 'no comment' interview, because he'd realised he was so tired. in court, he spoke of his childhood in belfast, and his knowledge of what a military occupation was like. he felt for the afghan people who face raided homes, and murdered innocents every day of their lives. he spoke of how the british presence in afghanistan had led to more civilian deaths. when maria told him about the debate he saw it as a real and exceptional opportunity to influence the politicians, policy makers, and lobbyists, and how even if he could shorten the war by just one day it would save real people's lives.
seamus' defence advocate explored whether he had made any attempt to hold a more 'legitimate' protest, and we heard how seamus had contacted the socpa events team at charing cross, asking for permission to hold his protest within the grounds of westminster palace, but had been told he'd have to go into tower gardens, a small park out of sight from and to the west of parliament, where very few people pass through. he was also denied access to parliament square, "not possible" because it was fenced off by the GLA.
asked about the squatter's rights banners, he explained it wasn't a publicity stunt or a protest about squatting, but that because the scaffolding was a free-standing structure, the section 6 declaration might just buy some extra time for the protest. otherwise there was the distinct possibility that the protest would be removed by a police rope team in a couple of hours.
he spoke about how it was not impossible that the protest might have an effect, and that because a million people marching had not prevented the iraq war from beginning, that this more direct form of protest was necessary and potentially more effective.
the prosecution made much of his previous 'direct actions', including a much shorter banner drop back in may, but seamus pointed out this was different because it was a proper 'occupation', and had been much more dangerous to accomplish as they had rucksacks etc.
the defence simply asked whether there had been a debate on afghanistan going on back in may. of course there hadn't.
in summing up, the prosecution referred to their skeleton argument, already before the magistrate. she also made an extremely distasteful comment that if a strongly-held political belief was the basis of the defence, then that could apply to the 7/7 bombers too. apart from this jibe, she mainly appeared to argue that although the law allows a defence of 'necessity', it couldn't apply in this case, because both maria and seamus were 'full-time protestors' with a 'cause for the day', proven by the fact that the squat banner had nothing to do with afghanistan, and that it couldn't have been a last resort action as seamus had done something similar before. she also argued that the action might not have been 'necessary', because neither protestor could be sure that their previous protests hadn't already influenced the politicians. i found that an odd argument.
maria's defence (barrister ben silverstone from doughty chambers, appointed by bindmans) argued that the test of necessity was that the action was taken in circumstances that a sober person of reasonable purpose would take in the belief that it was necessary.
given that the debate was the first on afghanistan, and that it was taking place within parliament, it was reasonable and necessary to try to take a high profile action at this exceptional event and in this particular place at this exact time. with that purpose in mind, the action was conducted in a manner that was wholly proportionate and reasonable. the squat banner was only taken in the (perhaps misguided) belief that it might be an aid to the aims of the protest to occupy the space for an extended period.
seamus was represented by hodge, jones and allen partner, raj chada. he argued that 'necessity' meant the defendant's reasonable perception and good cause to fear that death or serious injury would result if he didn't take this action. as this was the first vote on the war, seamus reasonably believed it was crucial, and he felt 'impelled' to do this as the vote could have been pivotal to saving lives. his attempts at organising an 'authorised' protest had been denied, refusing him permission to get his views across effectively, with the offer of an out of site venue around the corner.
at this point judge roscoe seemed confused, and then after appearing to clear up the matter, a few minutes later asked some more questions. she'd been under the illusion that seamus had approached the police events dept before his previous banner drop in may, rather than the one in november, the subject of this case. although after some painful reptition, she eventually got this point, it was rather disconcerting that she hadn't grasped these simple facts about the case as they unfolded earlier in the day. it certainly made me wonder if she'd been listening at all, and undermined any confidence i might have had in her ability to reach a fair verdict.
when eventually she'd grasped the timeline, raj continued with his summing up. with the test of necessity met, the issue of the squat banner was a sideshow drummed up by the prosecution as it was clearly there simply to aid the main protest, and the timings and position of the protest was clear, proportionate and reasonable.
after nearly an hour of deliberation judge roscoe told the court that in her mind the protestors were not 'impelled' to take this action and, while they may have reasonably believed their actions were necessary to influence the course of a war in which people are killed, that all sorts of other protests were available to them which were not illegal.
she said that maria was a full-time protestor who believes only in peaceful protest, but that 'impelled' means no other course of action was available, and she didn't believe that was the case. she asked whether a reasonable person of similar 'characteristic' would have done the same thing, but then said that 'characteristic' was not the same thing as beliefs, and so the answer was no. i'm not sure i understood the distinction in this argument.
she accepted that although seamus' previous escapade didn't necessarily mean he couldn't have been 'impelled' to do it this time, she didn't accept that was the case.
both defendants were found guilty, but as both were very peaceful, co-operative, and proportionate, she saw the misdemeanour as an 'overstepping of the mark' rather than a serious offence, (which socpa section 128 can be), and so she would give the minimum sentence she could. she also said she certainly didn't want to discourage lawful protest. she then proceeded to pass a nine month conditional discharge to both defendants. no costs were awarded.
i'd have thought an absolute discharge would actually have been the minimum sentence but what do i know!
suddenly, the prosecution lawyer asked to address the court one more time, on behalf of detective constable matthews. quite how this fits into court protocol no-one knew, and given that a little earlier the judge had refused to hear a comment from one of the spectators in the court who had raised their hand to speak, it was a little surprising we had to hear this post-trial comment. but the lawyer then read out what amounted to a thinly-veiled death threat from the officer, who asked anyone considering similar action to bear in mind that parliamentary security were armed officers, and that someone might get shot next time.
both defence lawyers commented outside that this was an unusual and surprising addition to the legal process.
so there we have british justice. a prosecution lawyer making out that the protestors weren't serious and just went up parliament with a medley of banners including squatter's rights, also trying to compare them to extreme terrorist bombers. a judge who had difficulty grasping the factual timeline of the evidence. and a police witness who hung around after giving evidence and got the prosecution to utter threats at the end of the trial.
still, seamus enjoyed a walk round to parliament square, having been banned from there for the last nine months by draconian bail conditions for what the judge concluded was 'an overstepping of the mark'.
the defendants are considering whether to appeal.