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UK: Shutting down of peaceful protest represents 'everything that is wrong with protest policing'

Banner drop planned to mark World Refugee Day and call on UK government to scrap its immigration bill stopped by police

Protest had been organised by human rights organisations including Amnesty UK, Freedom from Torture and Liberty

Campaigners were surrounded by police, five police vans and a police boat

Shutdown comes amid ongoing crackdown on peaceful protest in the UK

We have entered a very, very dark era for protest policing in the UK’ – Sacha Deshmukh

A peaceful protest organised by Amnesty International UK, Freedom from Torture, Liberty and a coalition of other human rights organisations to mark World Refugee Day was shut down today (20 June) after police approached staff and activists while they were setting up the event.

The campaigners had planned to hang two 50-metre banners off Westminster Bridge which said: ‘Compassion not cruelty: refugees welcome’.   

However, as they prepared for the event, police approached and told the activists that they should stop, citing a danger to the public (see below for further details).

Amnesty has carried out similar bridge banner-drops on several occasions in recent years and the police have never previously objected.

Today’s events take place in the context of a much wider clampdown on peaceful protest – with the UK government having granted sweeping powers to the authorities and pressured police to do much more to clampdown on even non-violent protest.

Sacha Deshmukh, Chief Executive at Amnesty International UK, said:

“The prevention of this peaceful protest on Westminster Bridge represents everything that is wrong with protest policing today.

“Our plan to drop a banner on the bridge to mark World Refugee Day, in solidarity with some of the most marginalised in society, was not something that warranted an instant shutdown, five police vans and a police boat.

“Today's use by police of an obscure byelaw today only underlines the brazen attitude police now have when they detect anything that might signify protest.

“As we've said time and again, the right to protest is fundamental to a free and fair society, a right for which people have had to fight long and hard.  Without the right to protest, everyone's ability to hold the powerful to account suffers. 

“If today’s debacle is anything to go by – alongside the increasing clampdown on peaceful protest we are seeing across the country - then we have entered a very, very dark era for protest policing in the UK.”

Natasha Tsangarides, Associate Director of Advocacy at Freedom from Torture, said:

"Today, we were prevented by police from unfurling a banner on Westminster Bridge which called for 'Compassion Not Cruelty; Refugees Welcome'. This is yet another example of a clampdown on peaceful dissent against increasingly authoritarian laws being passed by this Government.

"A wide cross-section of British society – from footballers to faith leaders – has made clear that the UK government’s refugee bill is inhumane. For more than 35 years we have provided clinical services to refugees and survivors of torture who are now at risk of expulsion under this policy.

"Calling out the harmful consequences for survivors and campaigning for their human rights falls squarely within our duty. Our right to be able to do this is fundamental and Britain’s democracy is stronger for our efforts."

Sam Grant, Advocacy Director at Liberty said:

“The Government’s broad and draconian anti-protest laws have paved the way for police to overreach their powers, and for people to be stopped from standing up to power.

“This banner drop was important to stand against the Government’s cruel Illegal Immigration Bill – which flies in the face of international human rights principles and will tear families and communities apart. We will continue to stand in solidarity with refugees and migrants and fight for their rights.

“Either everyone has human rights or no one does. It’s not up to the Government to pick and choose who does and doesn’t deserve them.”

Banned: A peaceful protest to stand with refugees

Earlier today, Amnesty and a coalition of human rights organisations had planned to suspend two 50-metre banners from Westminster Bridge saying: ‘Compassion not cruelty: refugees welcome’.   The stunt had been planned to mark World Refugee Day today.

Organisations from across the sector are demanding that the UK government scrap its current immigration bill and instead provide access to safety to refugees no matter how they arrive by rebuilding an asylum system that offers them a fair hearing. These groups include Freedom from Torture, Amnesty International UK, Liberty, JCWI, Together with Refugees, JustRight Scotland, Women for Refugee Women, Praxis, Rainbow Migration and Rene Cassin.

However, as campaigners prepared for the event, police officers approached them and told them they should stop, citing Port of London Thames Byelaws and windy weather.

The banners had not yet been dropped or even fully attached, and when activists offered to come back later in the week, police refused to say whether the banner could then be displayed.

The campaigners - surrounded by police, five police vans and a police boat - eventually negotiated an arrangement whereby they were permitted to place the banners on the ground in Parliament Square, despite other police officers stationed outside Parliament initially saying they were not permitted to do this.

Campaigners believe that the litany of excuses being used by the police today for a protest to be shut down with little to no legal backing is indicative of a force that has been emboldened by the Government to crack down on an increasing range of peaceful protests.

Wider clampdown

Today’s encounter is symbolic of a much wider clampdown on peaceful protest in recent years - with the UK government handing ever-more broad and sweeping powers to the authorities in order to muzzle non-violent protest. These include last year’s passing of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, the passing of the Public Order Act earlier this year, and most recently the addition of protest regulations being made law last week.

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