Anti-fracking Protesters Freed Following Expedited Appeal
By Sofy Robertson
Last month, Britain witnessed the sentencing of three anti-fracking protesters. Charged with public nuisance, the three men received prison terms between fifteen and sixteen months; the first prison sentence for this type of crime since 1932.
Simon Blevins, 26, Richard Roberts, 36 and Rich Loizou, 31, were convicted following their protest outside the Preston New Road site near Blackpool.
Yesterday afternoon, the court of appeal ruled that their sentences were inappropriate and they should be freed immediately. Shortly after, the trio walked free from Preston prison to cheers and applause from dozens of supporters.
Many in the courtroom and those gathered outside wore red roses, just as Blevins, Roberts and Loizou had at their sentencing. This forms part of a campaign entitled Uniting the Roses Against Fracking, an anti-fracking campaign led by Lancashire and Yorkshire citizens, whose emblems are a red and white rose respectively.
Loizou spoke to the crowd outside the prison, saying:
“If people break the law out of a moral obligation to prevent the expansion of fossil fuel industries, they should not be sent to prison.
Fracking is beginning right now, so there has never been a more critical time to take action. Your planet needs you.” (The Guardian)
Loizou then urged the people gathered outside the prison to join a mass demonstration at the Preston New Road site on Saturday.
Following the conviction of ‘the fracking three’, questions were raised about the judge’s ties to the oil and gas industry following a Daily Mirror exposé. Judge Robert Altham’s father and sister run a company believed to be part of the supply chain for energy conglomerate Centrica, which has invested millions of pounds in fracking. Many protested that the judge had a personal tie to fracking and therefore had a vested interesting in the sentencing of the three protesters.
The judicial code of conduct states a judge’s impartiality may be questioned if family members are “politically active” or have “financial interest” in the outcome of a case. (BBC)
The judicial conduct investigations office later confirmed it had
“received a complaint regarding HHJ Robert Altham, which will be considered in accordance with the judicial conduct (judicial and other office holders) rules 2014”. (The Guardian)
Blevins – a soil scientist from Sheffield, Roberts – a teacher from London, and Loizou – a piano restorer from Devon, had climbed upon lorries outside Cuadrilla’s fracking site in a protest last July that spanned almost 100 hours.
Speaking after the conviction of the three men, John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, said:
“It’s a strange society that massively rewards those responsible for causing more climate change while putting those trying to stop it in jail.” (BBC)
The trio were granted an expedited appeal amid widespread outrage from environmental campaigners and members of the public at the sentences, which were deemed “excessive” (The Telegraph) and unheard of for peaceful protesters.
Support for the three protesters online was overwhelming, and even some celebrities weighed-in. Actress Emma Thompson, who is also an environmental activist said:
“When a government behaves contrary to science, reason and public opinion, it’s inevitable that some brave souls will resist.
“I’m truly grateful to the three activists for doing what we should all be doing – trying to protect our children’s future from fossil-fuelled disaster.” (The Telegraph)
Lord Burnett of Maldon gave the panel’s decision at the Royal Courts of Justice in London yesterday, saying:
“In our judgment the appropriate sentence was a community order with a significant requirement of unpaid work […] We quash the imprisonment sentence.” (The Guardian)
During the appeal of the ‘fracking three’ it emerged that Judge Altham had refused the defendants an opportunity to bring a defence of necessity in their original trial. He explicitly stated pre-trial that he would not hear evidence about fracking and this restriction prevented the men from bringing arguments relating to their rights to protest and free speech.
Katie de Kauwe, lawyer at Friends of the Earth, said:
“An individual’s moral convictions on climate change or environmental protection shouldn’t be used as a factor to justify harsh sentencing.
“We believe that the fracking protesters’ passion for the environment was unlawfully used against them, resulting in incorrect and draconian sentences.” (The Telegraph)
Kirsty Brimelow QC, head of the human rights team at Doughty Street Chambers and who acted for the trio said:
“What the judge has done is imprisoned these people for their views and for a peaceful protest and what’s happened as a result is that there has been a chilling effect on protest, and this is something that has not occurred for many, many years.”
“He should not have sentenced, because there is sufficient evidence here to raise apparent bias.” (The Guardian)
Here, she referenced a letter signed by Altham’s sister in 2014 that called on Lancashire council to approve fracking.
Despite this, Lord Burnett would not accept the potential for Altham’s bias as grounds in the appeal, but said the issue needed further investigation and a response from Altham.
Jeremy Corbyn pledged that a Labour government would ban fracking, saying:
“I welcome the decision to quash the unjust sentences of fracking protesters. We stand in solidarity with the activists and thank them for standing up to the further destruction of our environment by this Tory government.”
Fracking for shale gas began at the Preston New Road site on Monday. This is the first time that hydraulic fracking has taken place in the UK since it was linked to earthquakes in Blackpool in 2011.