Black Lives Matter NI protesters hail decision not to prosecute
Black Lives Matter protesters have hailed as justification a decision not to prosecute them for participating in protests in Northern Ireland when strict coronavirus rules on public gatherings were in place.
The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) announced on Wednesday that no action would be taken against 14 suspects reported to it for potential offenses under Stormont’s coronavirus regulations.
The decisions concern three protests that took place last summer – two in Belfast and one in Derry.
Officials concluded that the test for prosecution was not met because the suspects could have successfully argued a reasonable excuse defense. The 14 people reported to PPS for potential prosecution included a mix of organizers, speakers and other attendees.
Reacting to the PPS decision, protester Cuthbert Tura Arutura said: “Today’s decision justifies us.
He added: “What represents today for the Black Lives Matter movement is that we were right from the start. And the way we were treated by politicians, the way we were treated by the police was not fair, it was discriminatory. We were treated differently from all other sedentary communities and what today’s PPS decision basically says is that we were right from the start. And this hostile environment towards people of color must end. “
Three of the suspects were reported to the PPS in a protest outside Belfast City Hall on June 3, seven in a protest near Custom House Square on June 6, with another suspect reported in connection with the two protests.
Three other suspects were reported in connection with a protest in Guildhall Square in Derry on June 6.
Three of the 14 suspects disputed a fixed penalty notice issued by the Northern Ireland Police Service in connection with their participation.
Protester Sipho Sibanda, who attended the Custom House Square protest, returned to the scene on Wednesday. She described the events of last year when the police intervened as a “cold day in hell”.
“A year later, a year later, it’s a beautiful sunny day and it’s full of hope, it’s full of hope,” she said.
Lawyer Darragh Mackin, who represented several of the protesters, said PSNI Police Chief Simon Byrne should apologize individually to the 14 people who were told they would not be prosecuted.
“Today is a decision that justifies not only our clients, but the right to protest more generally,” said the lawyer for Phoenix Law.
“I think the onus is on the chief of police to immediately apologize to everyone who has suffered nearly a year of torment for simply exercising their very, very basic fundamental right to protest. As we have always said, they should never have been fined, no one should have been interviewed and today is a justification for that position.
The reasonable excuse defense could have been based on the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly contained in the European Convention on Human Rights.
The PPS said that the protests were about an issue of social importance, were peaceful and organized in such a way as to minimize transmission of the virus were also factors in the decision not to prosecute.
Prosecutors said there was also a lack of legal clarity in Stormont’s regulations as to whether such protests were illegal.
They said the rules did not include any definition of a “gathering” or what constituted an “outdoor activity”.
“Tension within the provisions”
At this point, there was also no provision dealing specifically with the gathering for the purpose of protest.
The PPS noted a “tension within the arrangements” as they allowed an unlimited number to assemble for the purpose of an outdoor film, a live concert or a theatrical performance. Prosecutors said the reasonable excuses specified in the settlement were not exhaustive.
They added that another factor was the problems related to the “proportionality and consistency” of the police approach to the different protests.
They highlighted an investigation by the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman which found police treated Black Lives Matter protesters differently from those who gathered at Belfast Town Hall last summer to a Protect Our Statues event.
The watchdog said concerns that the police handling of the Black Lives Matter protests had been discriminatory were justified.
Explaining the non-prosecution decisions, PPS Deputy Director Martin Hardy said: “Decision-making on this case included examining a series of complex and emerging legal issues arising from the coronavirus regulations in place at the time of such protests and relevant human rights considerations. “
Responding to the PPS decision, PSNI Deputy Chief of Police Mark Hamilton said it was clear that the police handling of events “unintentionally damaged the trust of the black, Asian and ethnic minority community. “.
“The chief of police [Simon Byrne] apologized for the anger, upset and frustration caused by our police operation. And I would like to repeat that apology today, ”said Mr. Hamilton. – PA