UN Special Rapporteur calls for a "judge-led public inquiry" into undercover police operations and condemns a number of other police practices

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23.01.2013 - A wide number of policing practices in the UK have been condemned as "indiscriminate", "disproportionate" and in contravention of human rights standards by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, who today concluded a visit to the country. He has called for "a judge-led public inquiry into the Mark Kennedy matter, and other related cases." [1]

Kettling, widespread intelligence-gathering at protests, the embedding of undercover officers in peaceful direct action movements, the "broad" definition of "domestic extremism" and public order legislation which permits the banning of protests have all been heavily criticised by Mr Kiai, who said at a press conference that "protest is actually good for a country, it's not bad at all…. It may disrupt traffic or some shopkeepers but protest is good for society."

Asked about the need for individuals to request permission from the police to protest in or nearby the Houses of Parliament, he said that "any regime that requests authorisation [to protest] is wrong."

Byelaws passed last year also prevent the use of "sleeping equipment" such as tents being used in a significant area in and around Parliament Square, [2] which Mr Kiai regarded as "disproportionate."

"If there is camping in a place that's a public space, and it's not disruptive to traffic or people, I can't see a problem with that," he said. However, "the difficulty comes with a mass protest… [and] I suspect in the next three years there will be a lot more of this as the crunch bites."

He also said that while freedom of association is "largely enjoyed" in the UK, there were "a number of issues of concern," including the proscription under anti-terrorism powers of civil society organisations (for example, representing Tamil, Kurdish or Baloch communities) and the placement of banking restrictions on many Muslim charities. Restrictive laws governing trade unions were also criticised, with Mr Kiai saying that it is "time to repeal" laws that prevent secondary picketing and solidarity strikes, in order to "bring the UK into conformity with human rights law."

He also noted that he was "appalled to hear about the existence of a blacklist of union members in the constructions industry, with no sanctions allegedly taken against those who benefitted from the list." Ian Kerr, who died recently just weeks after appearing before a parliamentary committee investigating the issue, ran The Consulting Association, an organisation that maintained a blacklist used by a number of major construction firms. Kerr was fined £5,000 for doing so in 2009.

Undercover operations: a "judge-led public inquiry" is needed

The Special Rapporteur has called for "a judge-led public inquiry into the Mark Kennedy matter, and other related cases," saying he was:

"Deeply concerned with the use of embedded undercover police officers in groups that are non-violent and which exercise their democratic rights to protest and take peaceful direct action. The case of Mark Kennedy and other undercover officers is shocking as the groups in question were not engaged in criminal activities. The duration of this infiltration, and the resultant trauma and suspicion it has caused, are unacceptable in a democracy. It is a clear violation of basic rights protected under the Human Rights Act, and more generally under international law, such as the right to privacy."

At a meeting with Mr Kiai last week, a number of political activists, legal monitoring groups and civil society organisations (including Statewatch) related their concerns over undercover operations and the lack of accountability and redress available, something exemplified by last week's ruling by the High Court that significant amounts of a court case concerning sexual relations between undercover officers and protesters would be held in secret. [3]

Referring to the case, the Special Rapporteur said that "there's been no attention given to the victims in this" and that he was "appalled to see the judge's ruling saying that it's like James Bond."

Kettling, intelligence-gathering and databases

Although both domestic and European courts have ruled in favour of the use of kettling by UK police forces (specifically, London's Metropolitan Police), Mr Kiai heavily criticised the practice, saying that it is "detrimental to the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly due to its indiscriminate and disproportionate nature."

He noted also noted that is "undeniably has a powerful chilling effect on the exercise of freedom of peaceful assembly, and I was informed of many people who refrained from exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly for fear of being kettled."

Kettling came to widespread public prominence following protests against the April 2009 meeting of the G20, during which hundreds of people were held for hours with no access to toilets, water, or medical care. It was also widely used during the student protests that erupted in 2010, with thousands of people on a number of occasions trapped for hours in freezing weather. Following one incident, a doctor who gave medical assistance to a number of protesters "warned that police risk repeating a Hillsborough-type tragedy if they continue with [the] tactics." [4]

As well as concern over their use for controlling and corralling crowds, the Special Rapporteur noted the use of kettling for intelligence gathering purpose, "by compelling those kettled to disclose their name and address as they leave the kettle, increasing the chilling effect it has on potential protesters."

The gathering of personal information from and photographs of vast numbers of people during protests has long been a subject of concern for political activists, although attempts to challenge the practice through the courts have had mixed results. A July 2010 judgment ruled that the filming and photographing of people attending a meeting of the London No Borders group "had not been proved to be lawful and that the police had failed to provide any evidence that they were pursuing a 'legitimate aim'." [5]

However, a more recent decision saw the High Court rule that the collection by police of extensive amounts of information on John Catt, who regularly attends anti-arms trade protests in Brighton and sketches the participants, did not infringe his human rights. [6]

Mr Kiai noted that:

"The police have a legitimate duty to ensure that anarchy and violence are not part of protests; however, when it is unclear what the databases and intelligence on peaceful protesters are for, this only exacerbates tension and mistrust and can be counter-productive in fostering human rights."

Police liaison officers

Striking a more positive note, he welcomed "the establishment and use of protest liaison police officers [PLOs]," but sounded a note of caution: "it is necessary to separate the liaison function from intelligence gathering, which negates the goodwill and good relations that police liaison officers can foster by fuelling mistrust among protesters."

There have recently been reports of PLOs in Sussex going to a woman's house and "grilling her on her membership of UK Uncut and about future protests," [7] with the Network for Police Monitoring noting "concerns… that PLOs are taking on some of the intelligence gathering tasks that were previously done by the now widely distrusted 'Forward Intelligence Teams' (FIT)." [8]

The summary issued today - which also covers issues related to the policing of parades in Northern Ireland and Scotland - precedes the Special Rapporteur's full report, due to be published in June.

Previous coverage
- UK: Getting answers from the police on undercover deployments "will be a long process", Statewatch News Online, 12 January 2013
- EU: Another secretive European police working group revealed as governments remain tight-lipped on other police networks and the activities of Mark Kennedy, Statewatch News Online, 13 August 2012
- Matthias Monroy, Using false documents against "Euro-anarchists": the exchange of Anglo-German undercover police highlights controversial police operations, Statewatch Journal, vol 21 no 2 April-June 2011

[1] UN Press release, Statement by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association at the conclusion of his visit to the United Kingdom, 23 January 2013
[2] Westminster Council proposes banning "tents and similar structures" and "noise equipment" in crackdown on political protest, Statewatch News Online, 11 January 2012
[3] Outrage as high court permits secrecy over undercover policing, Police Spies Out of Lives, 17 January 2013
[4] Mark Townsend and Shiv Malik, Kettle tactics risk Hillsborough-style tragedy - doctor, The Guardian, 19 December 2010
[5] IRR News Team, Court rules against unauthorised police surveillance, Institute of Race Relations, 29 July 2010
[6] High Court judgment, [2012] EWHC 1471, 30 May 2012
[7] Jason N Parkinson, Police liaison officers accused of harassing activist - video, The Guardian, 4 September 2012
[8] The intelligence role of police liaison officers, Network for Police Monitoring, 7 September 2012

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