Two grandmothers from Yorkshire face up to a year in prison after becoming
the first people to be arrested under the Government's latest anti-terror legislation.
Helen John, 68, and Sylvia Boyes, 62, both veterans of the Greenham Common
protests 25 years ago, were arrested on Saturday after deliberately setting
out to highlight a change in the law which civil liberties groups say will criminalise
free speech and further undermine the right to peaceful demonstration.
Under the little-noticed legislation, which came into effect last week, protesters
who breach any one of 10 military bases across Britain will be treated as potential
terrorists and face up to a year in jail or £5,000 fine. The protests
are curtailed under the Home Secretary's Serious Organised Crime and Police
Campaigners expressed their outrage yesterday at Charles Clarke's new law,
which they say is yet another draconian attempt to crack down on legitimate
protest under the guise of the war on terror. In October last year a protester
in Whitehall was convicted for merely reading out the names of British soldiers
killed in Iraq. And at the Labour Party conference in September the Government
suffered severe embarrassment when Walter Wolfgang, a veteran peace activist
who survived the Nazis, was detained for heckling Jack Straw.
Mrs John and Mrs Boyes, who have 10 grandchildren between them, were held by
Ministry of Defence police after walking 15ft across the sentry line at the
United States military base at Menwith Hill in North Yorkshire. They were held
for 12 hours before being released on police bail. They will learn whether they
are to face prosecution when they return to Harrogate police station on 15 April.
"We thought this was a really important issue and we just had to challenge
it," said Mrs John, who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize last year.
Mrs Boyes, who was cleared by a jury at Manchester Crown Court in 1999 of causing
criminal damage to a British nuclear submarine, said: " I am quite willing
to break the law and prepared to be charged and to go to prison. The Government
thinks it can do whatever it wants and that it has a passive public which accepts
whatever it throws at it. I find it very worrying."
The women, who have been arrested more than a dozen times between them, went
equipped with a hammer and a small pair of bolt cutters as well as placards
declaring their opposition to the new law. They had prepared statements denouncing
United States military policy and expressing their support for the people of
Diego Garcia and the Chagos Islands, who were evicted from their homes to make
way for US military bases.
As well as Menwith Hill, the sites covered under the new law include Fylingdales,
the early warning station on the North York Moors and the US air bases at Mildenhall
and Lakenheath in East Anglia. From next week the powers will also cover three
nuclear sites - Aldermaston in Berkshire, its research facility at neighbouring
Burghfield and the Devonport naval base at Plymouth. The Government's decision
suggests it is already preparing for the protests that would follow the expected
decision to replace Trident with a new generation of nuclear weaponry.
Similar restrictions will be announced soon on selected non-military sites
such as royal palaces and government buildings. The Ministry of Defence said
the sites had been chosen because they had been the scene of regular protests.
A spokeswoman said: "Persistent activity by protesters places them at risk
of being mistaken for terrorists. It also unnecessarily diverts police resources
... People will still be allowed to protest outside sites. This legislation
is about keeping police focused on the job they are paid to do."
Kate Hudson, who chairs the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, said: "
The Government has a responsibility to safeguard its citizens - we would be
the first to argue that. But there is a very fine line between protecting people
and introducing legislation that is an infringement of civil liberties. In recent
legislation the Government has got on the wrong side of that fine line."
Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, said: "When does a peaceful
protester become a trespasser? In a free society, when does he become a criminal?
In Britain in 2006, only one man - the Home Secretary - will now decide instead
of Parliament and the court. Just when our politicians lament the demise of
participatory democracy they increasingly criminalise both free speech and protest."
Mrs John described the new law as a "kick in the teeth for the Magna Carta"
and said the need for opponents of the Government to take direct action was greater
now than ever. "We have seen two million people standing in Hyde Park and
Tony Blair had no compunction in ignoring them. Even though there are huge numbers
of people who oppose what the Government is doing, the only effective protests
have been where direct action is taken. We have to demonstrate at the bases where
the killing capacity exists - we have to attack it at source. These are the eyes
and ears of the US war fighting machine and they are on our soil."
Before Mr Clarke's announcement military police only had the power to escort
protesters off the military sites and prosecute them for civil trespass.
CRIME?: Wearing an anti-Blair T-shirt in Brighton during the
WHAT HAPPENED: He was stopped under section 44 of the 2000
Terrorism Act as he walked towards the seafront for an anti-war demonstration
outside the conference. His T-shirt accused Mr Blair and George Bush of war
crimes. He was released after signing a form confirming he had been questioned.
The police record said the purpose of the stop and search was "terrorism"
and the official grounds for intervention were "carrying plackard + T-shirt
with anti-Blair info" (sic).
CRIME?: Heckling Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, during
his speech to the Labour Party conference.
WHAT HAPPENED: The veteran peace activist shouted "That's
a lie" as Mr Straw justified keeping British troops in Iraq. He was manhandled
by stewards out of his seat and ejected from the Brighton Centre. When he tried
to re-enter he was briefly detained under Section 44 of the 2000 Terrorism Act.
Amid the disastrous publicity, senior ministers, from Tony Blair down, apologised.
CRIME?: Protesting over British casualties in Iraq.
WHAT HAPPENED: Standing on the Cenotaph in Whitehall, she
read out a list of soldiers killed in Iraq. She was arrested under the Serious
Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, which requires police permission to make
a protest within one kilometre of Parliament. She was given a conditional discharge
after being found guilty. Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor, later
denied that the prosecution was an "undue infringement" of individual
Flt Lt Malcolm Kendall-Smith
CRIME?: Refusing to serve in Iraq.
WHAT HAPPENED: The RAF doctor served in Iraq twice, but refused
to return for a third spell of duty last June. He argued that the military action
was not justified as Iraq had not attacked the UK or one of its allies. He is
being court-martialled, facing five charges of refusing to comply with an order.
After a pre-trial hearing rejected his argument that the orders were unlawful,
the court martial will open at Aldershot next week.
CRIME?: Maintaining an anti-war vigil outside Parliament.
WHAT HAPPENED: Mr Haw has become a permanent fixture in Parliament
Square since June 2001, when he erected a series of placards berating Tony Blair
and President George Bush. The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005,
was designed mainly with his vigil in mind. But the High Court ruled that the
legislation did not cover his protest as it could not be applied retrospectively.
The Government is appealing against that decision.