FOUR ACTIVISTS in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, were arrested by Northants Police on 22 February, for peacefully protesting against the felling of historically important trees.

Responding to the arrests, Oliver Feeley-Sprague, Military, Security and Police Director at Amnesty International UK, said: “These arrests are deeply concerning. Arrests at an entirely peaceful protest by local residents trying to prevent the destruction of a large number of historically-important and protected trees appears ludicrously heavy-handed.

“Northamptonshire Police’s actions should serve as a wake-up call over the dangers of giving police yet more powers to clamp down on legitimate protests. Amnesty has long been concerned that police officers misuse their powers to create a chilling effect on people’s rights to speak out about issues that they care deeply about.

“These arrests give an unsavoury flavour of what could well become the norm under draconian legislation that the Government is trying to push through parliament. Northamptonshire Police’s actions should serve as a wake-up call to the dangers of giving police yet more powers to clamp down on legitimate protests.”

In recent weeks, Wellingborough residents have been protesting over the destruction of trees that line the links to and the embankment of the River Nene.

A planning decision had been approved to allow the felling of 11 trees to make way for a new link road being built to support a new housing development. Last week however, a local resident saw notices stating that the planning decision had been amended and that in fact 61 trees would be felled.

Complicating the situation further is the fact that Tree Preservation Orders are in place on these trees and there is considerable confusion within the local council as to how the amended planning applications should be executed.

On 22 February, four peaceful protesters were arrested, including an 84-year-old, who was sitting on a chair blocking access to contractors’ vehicles and equipment.

Amnesty has long held the view that the police have a very broad range of existing powers at their disposal to deal with offences that may take place during a protest. The organisation is concerned that the breadth of those powers already give scope for subjective over-policing and potential abuse of those powers.

Shortly before the Public Order Bill’s Report Stage last month, the Government added amendments to define “serious disruption” in relation to certain new offences, limit the defence of reasonable excuse, and create new triggers for the police to impose conditions on whether a protest can even take place.

Together, they constitute a drastic, further expansion of police powers, allowing the police to intervene in and impose conditions on protests that have a ‘more than minor’ rather than ‘serious’ impact. Far from clarifying matters, these amendments exacerbate legal uncertainty and threaten to further restrict the right to protest.

Other measures in the bill have been criticised by the police themselves, the Home Office, His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services, and former senior police advisors for being “unworkable” and incompatible with the UK’s international human rights obligations. Most recently, five UN Special Rapporteurs have said the bill “could result in undue and grave restrictions” on civil liberties if not seriously amended.

No coherent case has been made by the Government for these expansive new powers, with the Director of Public Prosecutions stating recently that the authorities “already have the legal tools” they need.

Amnesty and a coalition of 73 organisations – including Liberty, Big Brother Watch, Greenpeace, the Black Equity Organisation, The Network for Police Monitoring and the TUC – oppose the Public Order Bill’s anti-protest measures in their entirety.

* Read Amnesty International UK’s briefing on the Public Order Bill here.

* Source: Amnesty International UK