Free Tibet Campaign claims victory as Met admits unlawful action

Wednesday, 3 May 2000

Free Tibet Campaign claimed victory at the High Court today after the Metropolitan Police conceded that its officers acted unlawfully when they removed flags and banners from demonstrators on The Mall during the Chinese President's State Visit last October.

In an unprecedented declaration [1], approved by the Court, the Metropolitan Police also conceded that it would be unlawful for police vans to be positioned in front of demonstrators if the purpose was to suppress free speech. Free Tibet Campaign supporters stood outside the High Court this morning with a large cardboard cut-out of a police van.

The declaration came in response to Free Tibet Campaign's legal challenge that the police removal of flags and banners from peaceful protesters on the Mall and the positioning of vans in front of demonstrators during the Chinese State Visit was unlawful.

Free Tibet Campaign Director, Alison Reynolds said it was the first time since Jiang Zemin set foot on British soil that the police admitted they had acted illegally, and that they had only done so as a result of Free Tibet Campaign's legal action. This declaration contradicts the police internal review conducted after the visit.[2] She called on the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to explain how his officer's internal review came to defend as 'policy' what the police now admit was "unlawful".

"We took this court case because, like many members of the public, we believed the police action during the State Visit was unacceptable and unlawful. The police have now admitted that their methods of policing were illegal. This is a victory for the democratic right to peaceful protest in this country, something sadly lacking in Chinese occupied Tibet."

Ms Reynolds said that the police declaration had been accepted by Free Tibet Campaign which would now not take the case any further. It is believed to be the first time that the police have made a declaration that their policing of protests was unlawful. However, she added that Free Tibet Campaign rejected the excuses offered by the police, namely that no order was given to remove flags and banners, but that individual officers "misapplied" the Royal Parks Regulations, and that the use of vans was necessary to control public order [3].

"It stretches credibility to ask us to believe that all the officers in the Mall spontaneously made the same mistake by removing flags and banners. Senior officers did nothing to correct this, and the Met's own review defended the action. How come?" asked Ms Reynolds.

For more information contact Alison Reynolds: 020 7833 9958 Mobile 07711 843884

Notes for Editors:
1. The Court approved the following declarations:
a) A declaration that it was unlawful for individual officers to remove banners and flags from people solely on the basis that they were protesting against the Chinese regime on the Mall on 19 October
b) A declaration that it would be unlawful to position police vans in front of protesters if the reason for doing so was to suppress free speech.

2. The Metropolitan Police's internal review of the Chinese State Visit (prepared by Detective Superintendent Kevin O'Connell and published 17 March 2000) made no mention that the removal of flags and banners in the Mall was unlawful; quite the reverse, describing it as a "restrictive policy" (page 17, paragraph 7.11)

3. Commander Messinger, the officer responsible for the entire operation, has attributed the unlawful removal of flags and banners to individual officers "misapplying" the Royal Parks Regulations, maintaining that there was no order from above. However, the widespread nature of this action, and attempts by police officers elsewhere in London to remove flags and banners suggests this was a broader policy, with officers clearly having been briefed to recognise the Tibetan flag.

Chief Superintendent Crosbie, the officer responsible for the operational decisions which led to the parking of vans in front of demonstrators on 19 and 21 October has not made a statement defending those decisions. Commander Messinger has said that the vans were necessary to prevent public order offences, a claim roundly rejected by demonstrators, particularly outside Buckingham Palace on the evening of 19 October, who say that the protests were entirely peaceful. It was the only time this tactic was used in a State Visit during Sir Paul Condon's term as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

4. The legal action was brought by Free Tibet Campaign and eight individuals, who challenged the following aspects of the policing of the Chinese State Visit.
- the removal of flags and banners from the Mall on 19 October.
- the use of vehicles to mask demonstrators outside Buckingham Palace on 19 October and outside the Chinese Embassy on 21 October.
- discrimination between anti and pro-Jiang demonstrators, in that anti-Jiang demonstrators were interfered with and pro-Jiang demonstrators were not.
Free Tibet Campaign's legal team is leading human rights barrister Keir Starmer and solicitors Julie Holden and David Burgess of Winstanley Burgess. Navi Ahluwalia of the AIRE Centre (Advice on Individual Rights in Europe) is advising.

5. Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials estimated that between 600 and 700 letters were received on the subject; the Metropolitan Police themselves received 127 formal complaints and more than 30 Parliamentary Questions were tabled. Home Secretary Jack Straw was cross-examined specifically about the issue by the Home Affairs Select Committee on 26 October, and there were exchanges in both chambers on 4 separate occasions during debates on Foreign and Home Affairs.

6. Minister John Battle revealed that police met FCO and Embassy officials on eight occasions prior to the State Visit, "during which the concern of the Chinese authorities about the possible impact of demonstrations was discussed". No minutes were kept. Commander Messinger warned his officers that it was a "very politically sensitive visit". (Briefing, quoted in Metropolitan Police Review of the Chinese State Visit, March 2000)