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UK activist appeals law banning tents in Parliament Square

(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - 17 December 2012 - An activist who has staged round the clock peace protests in Parliament Square for six years is in the Court of Appeal today, to argue that a new law preventing her from putting up a tent violates her right to freedom of expression. The enactment of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act (2011) forced Maria Gallastegui to end her “peacestrike” earlier this year.

ARTICLE 19 supports Gallastegui's argument that a blanket ban on the use of tents, in order to maintain a sustained presence in Parliament Square, is a violation of her right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression and fails to fails to comply with international human rights law.

“Attempts to restrict protests that last any length of time in Parliament Square through the use of a blanket ban on putting up tents fundamentally undermines the right to freedom of expression and betrays the symbolic importance of Parliament Square to democracy and its iconic status worldwide,” said Agnes Callamard, Executive Director for ARTICLE 19.

“Sustained protests rely on the use of tents to enable people to stay in a place, even for relatively short durations. Protests like this have been monumental around the world, from the pro-reform encampments of Tahir Square to the occupy protests in New York, Madrid and countless other cities. These protests have shown the resolve of people to stay rooted in one place as a constant visible reminder of grievances that have not been addressed by those that govern them. Protests like this are the basis of democratic participation and have achieved historic change” she said.

“Regimes around the world looking for inspiration to stifle freedom of expression will be watching these proceedings intently, ” she added.
For six years, Maria Gallastegui has maintained vigils for the Tamils in Sri Lanka and the people of Gaza. However, Section 143 of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act (the 2011 Act), which came into force on 19 December 2011, prohibited within Parliament Square “tents” or any “other structure that is designed, or adapted … for the purpose of facilitating sleeping or staying in a place for any period.” The provision may be enforced through criminal penalties (a fine of up to £5000) and seizure provisions. This provision was enforced against Gallastegui on 3 May 2012, ending her protest.

“For centuries Parliament has been the focal point of political campaigning and change. The Suffragettes and Chartists gathered at Parliament Square – today they would face being turned away if they were deemed to have protested in an 'unauthorised way' or with 'prohibited items'. The new Act, LASPO, effectively prevents any form of sustained protest or gathering. It represents a stain on an institution that once prided itself as the 'mother of democracy' said Paul Ridge from Bindmans LLP, who is representing Gallastegui.

ARTICLE 19 considers that the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are fundamental to any democracy, and that there must be protection for the chosen means, location and duration for the exercise of those rights. Restrictions on these rights cannot be solely for aesthetic reasons, but must be premised on grounds recognised under international human rights law, such as protection of the public order or public health. An individual assessment, on a case-by-case basis, is required to ensure that such restrictions are both necessary and proportionate. The absolute prohibition in the 2011 Act preempts this assessment and is therefore illegitimate.

ARTICLE 19 notes that the impact of the 2011 Act is already been felt internationally. Responding to a Telegraph article in June 2012, the spokesperson to Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Peskov, cited the penalties available under the 2011 Act to justify harsh reforms to Russia's domestic legislation on protest.

The UK government should be mindful that a prohibition on tents in Parliament Square has the potential to provide the lead for governments around the world to follow suit, including those with less of an appetite for democracy.

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