Mass arrests threatens UK peaceful protests, lawyer warns


London : A lawyer at a leading civil liberties firm has expressed fears for the future of direct action protest in the UK after the mass arrest of corporate tax avoidance campaigners during last Saturday’s huge anti-cuts demonstrations in London.

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Matt Foot, a criminal defence solicitor at Birnberg Pierce, questioned the police motives, saying that the detention of 145 activists during an occupation of luxury food store Fortnum and Mason in Piccadilly was ‘unprecedented’.

‘To rush to treat people in this way and charge them on such a scale suggests the police want to make a statement. This is going to threaten the right to peacefully protest through direct action,’ Foot said.

‘Given the police’s public comments about violence on the demonstration, it is extraordinary that the overwhelming numbers of arrests and charges have been for non-violent protesters. One has to question the motivation behind this.’he told the Guardian newspaper.

The targeting of stores by tax avoidance protesters was held in parallel to Saturday’s march against public service cuts in which up to half a million people participated in the biggest demonstration seen in London since the height of opposition to the 2003 Iraq war.

The occupations were organised by UK Uncut, which since it was formed last October to highlight the billions of lost revenue, protests more than 100 high street as well as symbolically turning scores of banks into libraries and crèches.

‘It is unprecedented to arrest so many people for simply protesting peacefully in a building. And then it is intimidating to keep peaceful protesters for so long at the police station and then charge them so quickly without reviewing the evidence first,” Foot said.

Adam Ramsay, a campaigner with UK Uncut who was detained for more than 20 hours, said the arrests might have been politically motivated or to facilitate information gathering on the group.

‘At the time the chief inspector at Fortnum and Mason effectively told us there we had committed no criminal damage – that we were all ‘non-violent’ and ‘sensible’. But moments later we were all arrested for criminal damage – a charge later dropped.” Ramsay said.

Another tax avoidance protester, who was also detained and used the pseudonym of Imogen Perry, said in an article for the Guardian’s Comment is Free website that she had become a “political prisoner.”

“A very senior officer in my station admitted to my parents that he regretted having to charge the protesters on the orders of Scotland Yard: he said they all seemed like ‘nice people’, and that he suspected the charges were politically motivated,” Perry said.

“Another senior officer told me he suspected that it wasn’t so much a case of legality, but that UK Uncut had upset people who were that little bit too rich; that little bit too powerful,” she said.

London’s Metropolitan Police refused to comment on the controversy of the arrest, saying in a statement that the matter was “sub-judice” and that it would be “inappropriate to discuss further whilst proceedings are active.’