"The results today must add to the increasing demand for a Public Inquiry into the method of policing and cost to the public purse..." Simon Pook, solicitor
Today at Manchester Magistrates Court, `not guilty' verdicts were announced for three protectors charged with aggravated trespass at the Barton Moss anti-fracking protests which raged during the latter part of 2013 and early 2014.
Annabel Newfield, Stephen Jefferies and Laura Parkes participated in the slow walk demonstration on 18th February 2014 at the IGas exploratory drilling site in Salford, when they were pulled from the crowd and arrested during one of the nastiest police operations throughout the whole protest (see Salford Star report from the day - Salford Residents Shock at GMP Policing – click here).
The judge was shown footage, taken by both the police and an anti-fracking livestreamer, heard evidence from police officers present at the time and concluded that the prosecution case `contradicted the evidence' before him.
In common with previous Barton Moss cases and, given the right to peaceful slow walk protests in front of delivery lorries, the charges centred on whether the accused were engaged in `unreasonable behaviour', resisting efforts by the police to `encourage' them to walk by leaning back into officers; or whether the police were actually pushing them down the lane that led to the IGas site.
In giving evidence, the TAU's [Tactical Aid Unit] officer Bevan and other officers conceded that the TAU were brought in at certain points in the protest to increase the pace of the slow walks... "That's the only reason we would be deployed" said Bevan "To speed things up."
The officers also conceded that the three were not swearing or being abusive in any way, although PC Bolt insisted that Annabel Newfield was resisting walking... "It was a constant lean with her full body weight"...
Annabel's solicitor sardonically replied "She's not a sizeable lady is she? She shouted at you to stop pushing her."
Meanwhile, the court heard that former serviceman and current firefighter, Stephen Jefferies, had gone to the protest wearing an army beret and medals in an effort to "break down the stereotype of protesters" and had tried to engage the police in dialogue throughout the slow walk, until he was arrested...
"All the prosecution has shown is that he didn't walk quickly enough and that doesn't amount to unreasonable behaviour" argued his barrister, Richard Brigden.
Passing `not guilty' verdicts, the judge said that at no point did he see any of the defendants leaning backwards and that there was "no consistency" in the pace of the walk that the police imposed. He concluded that all three defendants were of good character and that "I broadly accept their evidence".
The `not guilty' verdicts bring to a close the Barton Moss trials, which have seen the vast majority of charges either dropped or quashed. Indeed, a report into the policing at Barton Moss by John Moores University and York University - titled Keep Moving! - concluded that the Greater Manchester Police operation "was driven by interests other than public order and crime prevention".
It added that the operation "served to physically clear protesters from the site, to deter others from attending the camp and to reinforce the construction of protesters as violent criminals and thereby legitimise the intensity of the policing operation".
According to the report's statistics of court cases related to Barton Moss, up until February this year there was a conviction rate of only 26%, while the conviction rate for public order offences nationally is as high as 96%. It all leaves a lot of questions unanswered...
Richard Brigden, of leading human rights chambers Garden Court North, has, together with Simon Pook of Lizar Solicitors, defended the right to lawful peaceful protest and held the state to account for its actions.
"I welcome the result today, it further highlights the overwhelming theme of innocence" Simon Pook told the Salford Star after today's verdicts "The results today must add to the increasing demand for a Public Inquiry into the method of policing and cost to the public purse."
The sentiment was underlined by Stephen Jefferies outside court this afternoon...
"It's been a long two years, like a dark cloud hanging over me because I have had to answer to a judge but I also have to answer to my employer as firefighter as well, so the fear of losing my job has been constantly there in the background and given me sleepless nights" he explained.
"I'm pleased but it's tinged with a bit of annoyance that it's actually taken this long, especially with the money it's cost" he said "It seems to me that there wasn't much of a case against us, as was shown today. But they still relentlessly pursued it at public expense.
"I think when David Cameron says that no expense will be spared in the pursuit of fracking, this is what he means, that he will pursue every single protester and take them through court to try and scare them off from doing it again" he added "Justice was done today, although there are some people who were found guilty and will feel that they've had an injustice, as they are equally as innocent as us."
Annabel Newfield felt the same emotions... "It's been two years and three months since we were arrested at Barton Moss and it just seems so ridiculous that we even got arrested in the first place" she said "It just felt really stupid that they took my freedom. I'm incredibly happy with this verdict, which is a just verdict, because we didn't do anything wrong. We just exercised our peaceful right to protest."
To read the Keep Moving! Report – click here
Or see the Salford Star article on the report in print issue 11 – click here for the electronic version