Defending the Right to Dissent and Protest

Thirty women and men representing a range of justice organisations as well as a number of individuals attended.  Nina Lopez-Jones introduced the workshop.

Brian Haw who started a peace camp in Parliament Square over two years ago in protest at sanctions and now war in Iraq, described Westminster Council’s attempts to evict him.  But the courts have upheld his right to protest in the Square, acknowledging that his protest concerned an issue of national importance and focused appropriately on Parliament where decisions are made.  Michael Schwarz (pictured above left speaking), Mr Haw’s lawyer from Bindman’s Solicitors which has worked with LAW since 1981, explained how they used the Human Rights Act to win this precedent-setting case which overrides other statutes restricting dissent, and protects individuals acting in groups and alone.

Maria Gallastegui and her daughter who help Mr Haw sustain his continuous protest with food, laundry and other vital services, explained why they do this support work for him.  Ms Gallastegui also described her community organising on a very racially mixed “no-go” estate to counter the prejudice estate people faced, which is often used to dismiss what they have to say and to contribute.

The twice-weekly community picket and open mike run by women from the Global Women’s Strike (GWS), also on Parliament Square to protest the war and occupation of Iraq, has also prevented several attempts to close it down. The women have been able to rely on the earlier precedent, and on gathering support from the public and some MPs including with a press conference in the House of Commons.

Maggie Ronayne (pictured above right speaking) from the National University of Ireland reported on the case of a woman peace protestor charged with criminal damage to a war plane.  The jury failed to reached a verdict.  A woman who had lived at Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp described how the women had set new legal standards by defending themselves in court, often successfully.

Chris Coverdale from Legal Action Against War compellingly described efforts to prosecute named politicians for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes using the International Criminal Court and the Geneva Convention.  He said that the atrocities in Iraq were clearly grounds for prosecution.  A suggestion to issue a petition was accepted. 

A woman from the Yarlswood asylum seekers support group sought advice from the workshop on what to do about the judge in the case threatening campaigners with contempt of court for demonstrating outside.  Niki Adams (LAW) described a similar experience and stressed the importance of not being intimidated and upholding our right to protest.  What happens in court is often greatly influenced by public opinion and it is crucial that campaigners are not deterred from publicising the case and gathering support.

Protestors who had been at Fairford military base sent information.  Their civil right to dissent had been severely infringed when they attempted to picket the base.  A woman who participated in the 2002 Mayday protests gave an update on their case against false imprisonment.

People described feeling nervous about attending pickets and demonstrations especially since the police had started using the tactic of detaining people for hours.  However, armed with precise information about their rights from the workshop, they felt encouraged to continue to exercise their right to protest.

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