Defending our right to protest and speak the truth

In 2011 we visited an journalist friend in Kyiv, who at the time was a reporter for Ukraine and Belarus. His stories of Belarus were fascinating. Ruled by the authoritarian dictator Alexander Lukashenko since 1994, Belarus has long been criticised for its record of human rights and the silencing of journalists and opposition political movements.

In 1998 a government decree limited citizen’s right to express their own opinion. This gave the police the power to stamp on any kind of protest. A ban was also made on gatherings. 

Of course the populace developed creative ways of peaceful protest. For example once, as people were milling in small clusters in the main square in Minsk, everyone spontaneously started to clap. As a result clapping was banned. 

Sometime later Lukashenko went to give a speech in Minsk and there was much confusion as to how to react. Should they clap? If they didn’t clap, would there be trouble? Given that plain clothed police and military mix with civilians, and violence is commonplace, not doing the right thing could have terrible consequences. If it wasn’t so horrific, it would be comical.

As we listened to our friend’s stories, we felt relieved to be living in a country where freedom of speech could be taken for granted. However new laws written into the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act of April 2022, are causing this freedom to be rapidly eroded.

On Thursday 18th April there were two significant cases, both about the right to protest. The first involved Dr Sarah Benn, a GP who has been practicing for over 30 years. She was found guilty of professional misconduct for holding up a placard saying ‘Stop New Oil’ outside an oil terminal at Kingsbury, North Warwickshire. An injunction was taken out against her and other protesters by the US oil giant Valero. 

This charge of professional misconduct sets a grave precedent for other medics involved in protest. At a time when medics are in short supply and the NHS is stretched to breaking point, removing licences for involvement in protest is a own goal of the highest order.

The second hearing on the 18th April was for the 69 year old former mental-health social worker Trudi Warner. Trudi was in front of a jury for holding a placard outside Inner London crown court saying “Jurors you have the absolute right to acquit a defendant according to your conscience.” Words taken from a plaque on the Old Bailey.

Trudi was moved to protest after climate protestors were denied the right to make any mention of climate change in their court defence as a motivation for their actions by Judge Silas Reid. One activist who ignored this, David Nixon, a care worker from Barnsley, was duly jailed for two months for contempt of court. This feels like it comes straight from the pages of George Orwell’s 1984. The outcome of the verdict for Trudi is due on Monday, but I desperately hope common sense prevails. 

Why do we protest? I feel the accompanying photo says it all; we protest for social justice, human rights, to protect life on earth, but most of all to hold power to account.

We are all benefactors of protests. We can thank protestors for our right to vote, for equality, for holiday pay and much more.

The Climate Crisis is the biggest threat humanity has faced; people protest to make life better for us all. If we allow our courts to take away our voice, then what hope do we have for a fair and just society?

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