Guest Post by Stephen Kingston
In this guest post, Stephen Kingston, editor of the Salford Star, reports on calls for a public inquiry after the acquittal yesterday of the final three people facing charges arising from protests outside the IGas exploratory drilling site at Barton Moss.
After hundreds of charges brought by the Crown in relation to the Barton Moss anti-fracking protests of 2013 and 2014, the final three cases were heard at Manchester Magistrates Court on Wednesday where the judge delivered not guilty verdicts on charges of aggravated trespass.
Now, with the overwhelming number of charges either dropped or quashed, there’s a growing call for a public inquiry into the policing and cost of the response to the Salford protests.
Yesterday’s case concerned Annabel Newfield, Stephen Jefferies and Laura Parkes. They participated in a slow walk demonstration on 18th February 2014 at the IGas exploratory drilling site in Salford. They were pulled from the crowd and arrested.
The judge was shown footage, taken by both the police and an anti-fracking livestreamer, heard evidence from police officers present at the time and concluded that the prosecution case “contradicted the evidence” before him.
In common with previous Barton Moss cases and, given the right to peaceful slow walk protests in front of delivery lorries, the arguments centred on whether the accused were engaged in `unreasonable behaviour’, resisting efforts by the police to `encourage’ them to walk by leaning back into officers; or whether the police were actually pushing them down the lane that led to the IGas site.
In giving evidence, officers from the Tactical Aid Unit conceded that the TAU were brought in at certain points in the protest to increase the pace of the slow walks. One of them, officer Bevan, said: “That’s the only reason we would be deployed. To speed things up.”
The officers also conceded that the three were not swearing or being abusive in any way, although PC Bolt insisted that Annabel Newfield was resisting walking. “It was a constant lean with her full body weight”.
Annabel’s solicitor replied “She’s not a sizeable lady is she? She shouted at you to stop pushing her.”
The court also heard that former serviceman and current firefighter, Stephen Jefferies, had gone to the protest wearing an army beret and medals in an effort to “break down the stereotype of protesters”. The court heard he had tried to engage the police in dialogue throughout the slow walk, until he was arrested.
His barrister, Richard Brigden, said:
“All the prosecution has shown is that he didn’t walk quickly enough and that doesn’t amount to unreasonable behaviour”.
Passing not guilty verdicts, the judge said that at no point did he see any of the defendants leaning backwards and that there was “no consistency” in the pace of the walk that the police imposed. He concluded that all three defendants were of good character and added:
“I broadly accept their evidence”.
The not guilty verdicts bring to a close the Barton Moss trials, which have seen the vast majority of charges either dropped or quashed. The Keep Moving report by researchers at Liverpool John Moores and York Universities examined the operation by Greater Manchester Police at Barton Moss. It concluded:
“The dubious legality under which arrests were carried out, evidenced by the readiness of the courts to challenge their legal basis, raises important questions about the extent to which the policing operation was driven by interests other than public order and crime prevention.”
The report also said mass arrest was a central part of the police operation.
“The tactic served to physically clear protesters from the site, to deter others from attending the camp and to reinforce the construction of protesters as violent criminals and thereby legitimise the intensity of the policing operation.”
The researchers analysed statistics on the outcome of court cases related to the Barton Moss protests. Up to February 2016, there was an overall conviction rate of 29%. Where protesters challenged the evidence against them, conviction rates are even lower. Up to February 2016, 17% of cases ended in a guilty result after trial. The researchers said the overall national conviction rate in the criminal justice system is 86%, rising to 96% for public order offences.
Richard Brigden, of the human rights chambers Garden Court North, has, together with Simon Pook of Lizar Solicitors, defended the right to lawful peaceful protest and held the state to account for its actions. Mr Brigden said:
“I welcome the result today. It further highlights the overwhelming theme of innocence”
Simon Pook said:
“The results must add to the increasing demand for a public inquiry into the method of policing and cost to the public purse.”
Outside the court yesterday, Stephen Jefferies said:
“It’s been a long two years, like a dark cloud hanging over me because I have had to answer to a judge but I also have to answer to my employer as firefighter as well, so the fear of losing my job has been constantly there in the background and given me sleepless nights”.
“I’m pleased but it’s tinged with a bit of annoyance that it’s actually taken this long, especially with the money it’s cost. It seems to me that there wasn’t much of a case against us, as was shown today. But they still relentlessly pursued it at public expense.”
“I think when David Cameron says that no expense will be spared in the pursuit of fracking, this is what he means, that he will pursue every single protester and take them through court to try and scare them off from doing it again. Justice was done today, although there are some people who were found guilty and will feel that they’ve had an injustice, as they are equally as innocent as us.”
Annabel Newfield said:
“It’s been two years and three months since we were arrested at Barton Moss and it just seems so ridiculous that we even got arrested in the first place” she said “It just felt really stupid that they took my freedom. I’m incredibly happy with this verdict, which is a just verdict, because we didn’t do anything wrong. We just exercised our peaceful right to protest.”
This article first appeared in the Salford Star on 27 April 2016. Link