Socialist Worker

A victory for the right to protest

by Guy Smallman
Issue No. 2031

Large numbers of police searching the coaches (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Large numbers of police searching the coaches (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Demonstrators against the Iraq war, who were detained during a protest in 2003, have won a legal victory against the police's action.

Two days after the bombing began in Iraq in March 2003 protesters left London on three coaches to attend a protest at RAF Fairford. The base was being used by US bombers that were pounding Iraq with their deadly cargo.

Two miles outside of Fairford the coaches were stopped by hundreds of police officers from seven different forces. The passengers – who included journalists and many pensioners – were subjected to two hours of searches before being told they could proceed to the demonstration.

As soon as they reboarded the coaches, the police held the doors shut as they were turned around back to London. They were driven at a snail's pace with a heavy police escort. There was no explanation from the police or access to any food, water or toilets. The passengers heard that riot squads were waiting for them at Euston station, so many escaped from the emergency exits when the motorcade reached Shepherds Bush. They were then assaulted by the police who were escorting the convoy.

Three years on the House of Lords, the highest court in the land, has decided that the actions of the police were illegal and the protesters' human rights were violated. Lord Bingham has described the police's actions as 'wholly disproportionate' and said that the right to protest is 'an essential foundation of a democratic society'.

In their defence police had claimed that they were preventing a breach of the peace and were concerned that US Marines stationed at Fairford had been given permission to use 'lethal force' to anyone who breached the perimeter. Coach passenger Helen Wickam said “I think it is deeply worrying that Gloucestershire police, confronted with the possibility of US troops shooting unarmed protesters, chose to defend the US use of lethal force over out right to protest. I wonder if there was pressure on them to do so.”

The police will now have to spend tens of thousands of pounds compensating the protesters and the court victory has implications for many more cases being heard at present. It is deeply ironic that British people are now relying on the House of Lords to protect their freedom from an increasingly paranoid and authoritarian Labour government.

Police detaining a protester after the coaches returned to London (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Police detaining a protester after the coaches returned to London (Pic: Guy Smallman)

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Article information

Sat 16 Dec 2006, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 2031
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