06 April 2006 By Nigel Morris and Jonathan Brown, The Independent (UK)
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 Act.
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.
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.”
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.