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Met criticised by human rights group for calling protests unlawful


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Human rights groups condemned the Met's action after over a hundred arrests were made over the weekend at protests which are no longer exempt from lockdown regulations.


A man is detained by police during an anti-lockdown protest in Whitehall, London
A man is detained by police during an anti-lockdown protest in Whitehall, London

Date - 30th November 2020
By - Chloe Livadeas

There was no exemption for protests specified in the first lockdown from March. An exemption to the ban on gatherings to allow protest first specifically appeared in the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 on 14 September.

However the most recent national lockdown, which started 5 November, removed the exemption.

The right to protest had not been included in the list of 'reasonable excuses' in any of the rules prohibiting gatherings before September, which meant the Black Lives Matter protests in June were illegal.

On Friday 27 November the Metropolitan Police issued a statement and video ahead of planned demonstrations in the capital warning that protests are not currently allowed under coronavirus regulations.

But human rights groups have since written to the force asking them to retract the “wrong” declaration that it is currently unlawful to attend a protest.

On Saturday 28 November 155 arrests were made during anti-Lockdown demonstrations in central London for offences including breaching coronavirus regulations, assaulting an officer and possession of drugs.

Officers made a number of early interventions to prevent people from gathering and to urge people to go home. Coaches transporting protestors into the capital were intercepted and those who did not turn back and go home were either arrested or issued with fixed penalty notices.

Chief Superintendent Stuart Bell, policing commander for this event, said: “This was a challenging day for Met, City of London and British Transport Police officers and I would like to thank them for the professionalism they have shown throughout the day.

“On Friday, we made it very clear how we would police this event, warning those looking to attend that they risked facing enforcement action if they attended a gathering in London. Today’s enforcement action is a direct result of those individuals deliberately breaking the law and at times, targeting our officers with aggression and causing disruption to the road network.”

Voices on social media claimed the police response was disproportionately heavy handed, notably more so than during BLM and Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests this summer.

There were over 200 arrests during the BLM protests in London over the summer. No arrests were made for coronavirus related offences.

Human Rights Group Liberty and Big Brother Watch wrote a letter to C/Supt. Bell urging the Met to retract their statement and said the force had misinterpreted the law.

The letter reads: “As organisations that defend human rights, including the freedom of assembly and expression, we are deeply alarmed by the Metropolitan Police’s statement of Friday 27th November that wrongly claimed, ‘protest is not currently a permitted exemption to the prohibition on gatherings under the current Coronavirus regulations’.

“This is a chilling statement that is wrong in law.”

They argue that fails to respect both the Coronavirus Regulations currently in place and “fundamental freedoms of assembly and expression”, protected by Articles 10 and 11 the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act.

The current regulations make an exemption for the organisation of gatherings by “a business, a charitable, benevolent or philanthropic institution, a public body or a political body”, which the groups say is defined in the regulation “any person carrying on, or proposing to carry on activities to promote, or oppose, changes in any law applicable in the United Kingdom or elsewhere or any policy of a governmental or public authority”.

“This clearly encapsulates the protests planned for today (Saturday), which are campaigning for changes to the law in the UK,” the letter reads.

Silkie Carlo, Director of Big Brother Watch said: “By denying that political gatherings can be organised and attended lawfully with safety measures, police are making inevitable protests less safe and more likely to result in prosecutions. We cannot and will not allow police to trash the rule of law.”

The Met today said they stand by their statement ahead of the protest advising people attendance would be unlawful.

The government confirmed that under the coronavirus legislation for the November lockdown does include a ban on protests.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “In these unprecedented circumstances, any gathering risks spreading the disease, leading to more deaths, so it is vital we all play our part in controlling the virus.

“People must follow the rules on meeting with others, which apply to all gatherings and therefore protests too. As they have done throughout the pandemic, the police and local authorities will engage, explain and encourage people to follow the rules before moving on to enforce the law.”

They said they were unable to comment on what the rules on protest would be under the new tier system, which MPs will vote on today (1 December), as it was not yet enshrined in law. 

The National Police Chiefs' Council said in a statement: “The right to protest is well established in this country and is a key part of our democracy. Policing in the United Kingdom have a long history of upholding this, policing by consent and ensuring the safety of all those exercising that right.

"However Coronavirus is a deadly disease and there are restrictions in place to prevent its spread.

"Gatherings of more than two people are unlawful under the new Coronavirus regulations. We continue to urge people to abide by these regulations, as we have throughout this public health crisis, to help keep themselves and others safe.

"Forces have significant experience in policing protests safely and peacefully, and the starting point for any policing plan is community engagement. Officers will work to prevent events which would break the law from taking place by engaging with the organisers, where this is possible."

A former Metropolitan Police officer who attended Saturday's protests has written about his observations here. 

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