Support Imprisoned Protesters
There is a long history of juries acquitting activists in criminal cases on the basis that they are acting to prevent a greater wrong. But the right for defendants to tell the truth and give the context for their actions is under threat.
In an outrageous decision, Judge Silas Reid has instructed climate protesters facing criminal charges not to refer to climate change as a motivation for their actions. When, in his defence statement, David Nixon mentioned the subject of insulation and its relation to climate change the judge jailed him for eight weeks for contempt of court.
In March 2023, despite the substantive case against them collapsing, Dorset councillor Giovanna Lewis, 65, and horticultural worker Amy Pritchard, 38, were jailed for seven weeks for contempt of court for talking about fuel poverty and climate change in court. Judge Reid told the defendants they had sought to "set themselves above the law" by mentioning aspects of their motivation in carrying out the October protest that were not relevant to jury deliberations. He concluded that the defendants had either set out to "manipulate" the jury into acquitting them even if they were sure of the pair's guilt, or to use the trial to continue their protest within the courtroom.
A number of climate activists have been held for long periods on remand, in prison ahead of being found guilty for months at a time. Louis McKechnie was one of them. The JSO activist was held for 7 months without a trial after tying himself to a goalpost at a Premier League football game and participating in other actions. the cases of many more Just Stop Oil activists can be seen here.
Keeping legal courts and judiciary separate from political decision-making is a pre-requisite of a democratic state. The human right to manage your own defence at law, and sum up your case as you see it has been enshrined in UK law but is now at an end. To prevent an explanation of intent on the basis that it may influence the jury is a political action by the court.
Climate activists, and anyone concerned for the state of democracy in Britain today should be concerned and activated by these decisions. Political censorship inside the judicial system has now effectively created political prisoners.
The Campaign against Climate Change has long called for support for climate protesters facing court action or sentenced for protesting. We are calling on all campaign groups and individuals to challenge the judgements of Silas Reid, raising the issue with MPs and human rights organisations.
The right to protest, and the very basis of democracy is under attack.
In 2021, then Home Secretary Priti Patel said: "The right to protest is a fundamental principle of our democracy but we will not tolerate guerrilla tactics that obstruct people going about their day-to-day business". Boris Johnson, Prime Minister at the time, added: "This government will always stand on the side of the law-abiding majority and ensure the toughest penalties possible for criminals who deliberately bring major roads to a standstill. We will give the police the powers they need to stop their reckless and selfish behaviour." See more here
The UK government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Home Secretary Suella Braverman have expanded those pledges, now curbing the right to strike as well as identifying asylum seekers as illegal human beings who may be deported to Rwanda without being allowed to present their case for refugee status.
Laws now in place or going through Parliament:
Illegal Migration Bill: will remove the right to claim asylum on UK soil, without providing any additional legal routes for refugees. Suella Braverman admitted that the bill may not comply with the UK's obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. The UN's Refugee Agency have said it would be a clear breach of the Refugee Convention, while experts raised fears that the UK withdrawing from its obligations would encourage other countries to do likewise. This shouldn't need saying, but human rights are universal and it's not up to the Government to pick and choose who does and doesn't deserve them.
Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022: gives new powers to police to restrict protests, especially around Parliament, with increased sentences (more details here). The Act also threatens to criminalise the way of life of Gypsy, Romany and Travellers.
Public Order Bill: includes laws against "obstruction" which can be used against anti-racist campaigners or pickets as well as environmental protesters. The law makes it illegal to attach oneself to others, objects or buildings, with a maximum penalty of six months in jail, an unlimited fine or both. There is no definition of the word "attached" in the legislation. An offence is caused by being "capable" of creating "serious disruption" to "two or more people". attaching to others, objects or buildings will carry a maximum penalty of six months in jail, an unlimited fine or both. Being found with a bicycle lock or a tube of superglue in the wrong place at the wrong time is enough for a prosecution. Obstructing transport works, construction or maintenance will carry the same punishment as locking-on. It also increases stop and search powers of Police that are already used disproportionately against black people.
Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill: would mean workers who have voted to strike can be forced to work and sacked without recourse if they don't comply - and that unions could be compelled to tell workers not to strike, at risk of fines. The government is now seeking to extend this requirement from transport to five other areas - the NHS, education, fire and rescue, border security, and nuclear decommissioning (with no requirement to fund minimum service levels outside strikes)
Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill: The Government can take positive action to preserve certain laws, but the default position is that if no such action is taken, an estimated 3,700 laws will disappear from the statute books, including environmental protections and employment rights. Particular rights that could be affected include holiday pay rights, part-time and fixed term workers' protection, and the 48 hour maximum working week. Decisions on replacing these can be taken by ministers, without democratic oversight by Parliament.
Elections Act 2022: introduced the requirement to show photo ID at UK Parliamentary elections, police and crime commissioner elections and at local elections in England, further disenfranchising the most marginalised people in our society.
Bill of Rights (suspended): seeks to reduce the role of domestic courts to enforce rights, would restrict the legal requirements of public authorities to act positively to protect rights and undermines the universality of human rights applying to everyone.
As a consequence of these measures, the UK was recently downgraded in an international index of civic freedoms.
The harsh sentencing and imprisonment of climate activists should be a warning to everyone. The Tories' crackdown on protesters won't stop with climate activists. Every activist, trade unionist and campaigner must rage against the Tories' crackdown on Just Stop Oil and other climate groups - now is not the time to sit on the fence.
You can support prisoners via Rebels in Prison
Write to prisoners currently in prison: lists here. Send postcards as the prison authorities are refusing to print-out emails (there are too many!)
For general resources and campaigning on the policing of protests, support NetPol
Finally, while we focus here on climate protesters being locked up, we should acknowledge that the wider prison and criminal justice systems are in crisis and not fit for purpose, which is in itself a fundamental human rights issue.