A ludicrous coronavirus conviction shows why we need to hold the state to account

Demonstrators and police at the March 21 Kill the Bill protest in Bristol

Back in early 2020, we saw new coronavirus (Covid-19) laws being hastily passed through parliament which gave the police sweeping new powers to arrest and fine people. Hundreds of ever-changing lockdown laws were put in place over two years.

Now, in 2022, activists are still finding themselves in court, and judges are finding them guilty for breaching coronavirus regulations while attending protests when restrictions were in place. But are these convictions even legal? And, importantly, can they be overturned?

A ludicrous conviction

Recently, one activist was found guilty for breaching coronavirus legislation after he attended a Kill The Bill gathering in Bristol on 23 March 2021. That evening, around 200 police used some of the most disgusting physical violence I have ever seen in the UK, surrounding the gathering on all sides, assaulting people, and setting their dogs on protesters. The police used coronavirus regulations as an excuse to justify their brutality.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) argued that the police had the right to restrict articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights – freedom of expression and freedom of assembly – in the interest of public health and safety. But as the defendant pointed out in court, a parliamentary inquiry into demonstrations in both London and Bristol at that time highlighted “significant failings” by the police forces: that the Metropolitan police’s actions were “unlawful and breached fundamental rights”, and that Avon and Somerset police hadn’t “properly considered or understood the Article 10 and 11 rights”.

Despite pointing this out, the defendant was found guilty of not leaving the scene under coronavirus regulations, despite having heard no warning by the police to do so.

This conviction is ludicrous when we take a look at the numerous cases where it has been found that police have not been acting lawfully when it comes to enforcing coronavirus regulations.

Take the court case of Jasmine York, for example. She was sentenced to prison on a ridiculous arson charge following another Kill The Bill demonstration in Bristol in March 2021. During her trial, the CPS showed footage of the policing that day. The footage showed police officers telling protesters that their attendance was illegal under coronavirus legislation. Yet during York’s trial, the CPS admitted that the police were wrong to do this. In fact, it agreed that protest was not specifically banned, and that Avon and Somerset police were “wrong in their assumption that any protest was illegal”.

Read on...

Kevin Blowe, campaigns coordinator for the Network for Police Monitoring, argues that coronavirus regulations were “an absolute gift to police across the country”. He told The Canary that the rules

gave senior officers the discretion and the powers to disrupt and shut down protests, regardless of whether there was any genuine risk to public health and with no consideration of human rights obligations.

Also in 2021, Avon and Somerset police were forced to issue an apology to four Bristol protesters who had been fined for demonstrating outside court in January of that year. It admitted:

We now accept we misinterpreted the regulations and that the arrests and the issuing of fixed penalty notices were unlawful.

And in September 2021, the CPS dropped charges against Black Lives Matter activist Bianca Ali, after alleging that she organised a protest in breach of coronavirus regulations. Ali had been given fixed penalty notices, but she refused to pay and was being taken to court. At the time, Ali’s solicitor Patrick Ormerod said:

The case appears to be another example of a misunderstanding of the interaction between Coronavirus regulations and the Human Rights Act 1998, and another example – like Clapham Common – of the over-policing of protest relating to the conduct of the police.

Police in London and Bristol acted unlawfully

On 12 March, a judicial review condemned the Metropolitan Police for breaching protesters’ rights in 2021. The Met had told organisers of a Reclaim These Streets vigil that their protest would be “unlawful” under coronavirus laws. But a judge found that the Met:

infringed the claimants’ rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly under Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The judge said:

None of the Met’s decisions was in accordance with the law

In response, Reclaim These Streets said:

The decisions and actions by the Met Police in the run-up to the planned vigil for Sarah Everard last year were unlawful, and the judgment sets a powerful precedent for protest rights.

Blowe told The Canary:

The primary weapon [that the police used] was the use of fines on organisers and participants, either imposed or threatened. The recent High Court judgment on the policing of the Clapham Common vigils in March 2021 said this was enforced unlawfully. In the case of fines for protesting in Bristol later the same month, our view is that Avon & Somerset Police was motivated less by concern about the spread of Covid and more by the vindictive belief that Kill The Bill protests were illegitimate and needed crushing.

It’s time to drop all other coronavirus cases

The Reclaim These Streets judgment gives good grounds for appeal for activists who have received convictions for breaching coronavirus laws. And other coronavirus-related protest cases outstanding should be dropped on the back of it.

Meanwhile, the UK Covid-19 Inquiry has been set up to examine the state’s response to the pandemic.

Blowe said:

The forthcoming Covid Public Inquiry needs to consider the reversal of all coronavirus fines.

It’s telling that while protesters are still being hauled into court, the police showed great reluctance in investigating Tory politicians for the 16 parties they held during the pandemic, 12 of which are now subject to criminal investigation. It is also telling that it is still unclear whether the public will ever know the result of this investigation.

The way that police forces all over the country have handled the policing of protests throughout the pandemic is especially worrying, given that they will get sweeping new powers when the police bill becomes law. Across the country they have got away with using brute force and physically assaulting citizens in the name of coronavirus regulations.

Blowe pointed out:

we cannot allow the police to make up the rules about how protests are policed and then pretend they respect the right to demonstrate. With new, poorly-defined anti-protest legislation imminent, this kind of sweeping discretion is a danger to our human rights.

As protesters, it’s down to us – and any sympathetic lawyers – to make sure that we hold the police to account. We must appeal any fixed penalty notices we received while protesting during the pandemic, and we must definitely appeal convictions we were given by the courts.

Featured image via Shoal Collective

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