Judge threatens peaceful GM protesters with ASBOS and electronic tagging (2/11/2005)


If this charge had come up before a jury, then it would have gone the way of all the others.

But in this case anyone would think Lords Sainsbury had had a quiet word!

**Note important info about donations at end.**

Judge threatens first time peaceful GM protesters with ASBOS and electronic tagging

Community service for those doing the community a service - Harsh sentence regarded as indication of increasing clampdown on civil disobedience.

Five people were found guilty of aggravated trespass yesterday after they blockaded a Sainsbury's distribution centre in attempt to protect the public from the supermarkets GM fed milk. Four of the five were first time offenders, and yet they were given 50 hours community service, and ordered to pay GBP150 costs each. The punishment is regarded as being an extreme and disproportionate response, and it would appear was meted out specifically because their actions were ideologically motivated.

After a comprehensive three day trial in which the judge read expert evidence from scientists about the genuine threat posed by products from cows fed GM, the group were confident that at least the honesty and reasonableness of their actions had been heard. During the trail the judge went so far as to volunteer that he didn't doubt that 'if a hundred people were asked more than 90 would say that this information should be in the public domain'. However he then retired for three weeks to consider his verdict.

Yesterday in Yate magistrate's court outside of Bristol he found them all guilty. This was a matter of no huge surprise as Aggravated Trespass was created 9 years ago specifically to outlaw civil disobedience and protect companies and institutions from non violent protests. His reaction to the group did come as a shock. The probation officer was totally unprepared. The prosecution sited the sentence handed out to their fellow blockader (who'd pleaded guilty some months previously) of GBP250 fine and costs, and a conditional discharge, indicating that he felt a similar punishment would be appropriate.

However, the judge was apparently eager to be seen to apply the harshest criminal guidelines when passing sentence. He described the protesters (who included a carpenter, a shop assistant, and a researcher) as clearly being intent on harm to a wide range of people (including most reasonably, but also most intrigingly, Sainsbury's shareholders), and stated that the fact that they had planned the demonstration and acted as a group were also aggravating factors. When the defence pointed out that these were elements in mitigation, as they were designed to ensure the safety of all involved, this was disregarded. The judge stated that he was considering imposing a curfew on all the defendants (which would have involved electronic tagging), and had also contemplated applying Anti Social Behaviour Orders to those involved in addition to 'unpaid work'. However, apparently dismayed by the prosecutions news of the earlier benchmark set by their previous co-defendant, he eventually settled on Community service orders of 50 hours for the first time offenders, and 65 hours for Ms Snook, (whose previous record and breach of an outstanding conditional discharge for GM action were taken into account.)

Ms Chow said, "This is a totally extreme response to a valid protest which neither damaged property nor threatened anyone. We are seriously considering appealing the sentence. All of us currently do one sort of voluntary work or another for our communities, but the equivalent of two weeks unpaid work is a huge imposition on our liberty. We're worried that this marks a new trend towards protecting companies at the expense of democracy."

Ms Snook added, "We know that a Sainsbury's security person was present throughout our trial, and that the judge's demeanour changed enormously in the interval between the trial and the verdict. Sainsbury's have already invested a huge amount of money and influence in trying to thwart protests against them, and these sort of sentences are very much in keeping with the governments new 'anti terror' legislation which seeks to crush all kinds of protest. To be honest I wouldn't be surprise to learn that the judge was politely nobbled. Either that, or he was having an incredibly bad day."

Activists in Bristol will be holding a benefit gig sometime soon to try and raise the money to cover the groups GBP750, so please keep your ears open. Any personal donations gratefully received. Please contact 079291 08792 for more information.


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