Should Peaceful Protesters Face Criminal Charges? | tutor2u Law
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Should Peaceful Protesters Face Criminal Charges?

The right to protest peacefully, without fear of criminal prosecution, is a fundamental part of living in a democracy. Acts of civil disobedience have led to an improvement in rights for many downtrodden groups over the years. But at what point should acts of defiance be treated with criminal consequences?

Recently, 15 protesters broke into an area of Stansted airport and locked themselves onto an aeroplane, to prevent a chartered deportation flight arranged by the Home Office. The protesters argued that such flights were in breach of human rights and that the deportation policy of the Home Office was unfit for purpose, as more than half of all deportation decisions are overturned on appeal. As it happens, at the time of writing, two of those who were due to be deported have been granted leave to remain in the country, strengthening the case against the Home Office. The protesters, as well as a number of human rights groups, have argued that Article 14 - the prohibition of discrimination, renders the actions of the Home Office illegal, as they disproportionately target certain nationalities and religious groups.

However, the charges brought against the protesters were escalated from aggravated trespass (for which there is precedent) to terrorism charges, with the CPS citing “intentional disruption of services at an aerodrome” by means of “a device, substance or weapon” as their reason for bringing the case to court. Such a charge was originally designed to deal with acts of terrorism. The actions of the protesters, in this case, could hardly be called that according to a number of legal commentators. They argue that they were acting out of compassion and did not intend to put anybody’s life in danger. You can read an editorial on the case here.

Despite this, the CPS argued that by allowing such a protest to go unchallenged under the terrorism legislation, they might be setting a dangerous precedent, which in the future, could undermine the prosecution of more serious terrorism cases. After all, the protesters had diverted police resources from other areas of the airport, potentially leaving them vulnerable to terrorist attacks. The CPS also argued that the bolt-cutters and equipment used to break into Stansted and to attach themselves to the aeroplane constituted “devices”, as outlined by the legislation.

Sentencing won’t take place until February, but there are concerns that due to the nature of the charge, those found guilty may be handed a more severe sentence than many argue they should receive.

So the question is, should legitimate concerns over national security override the rights of the deported and the rights of the protesters?

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