U.K. Protest Law in Spotlight as Police ‘Regret’ Some Coronation Arrests

The police in London have expressed regret about a small number of the dozens of protesters they detained on the sidelines of the coronation of King Charles III on Saturday, fueling a national debate about the policing of the event and about the new anti-protest law that officers used in some arrests.

The law, called the Public Order Act 2023, came into effect days before the coronation, giving the police in England and Wales extended powers to detain and charge those they suspect of mounting or of preparing potentially disruptive protests. Saturday was widely seen as the first test for the legislation, which was brought forward last year after a wave of climate protests and has drawn condemnation from rights groups and legal experts.

Leila Choukroune, a professor of international law at the University of Portsmouth, said the new legislation is reflective of a growing trend in democracies around the world where governments have introduced measures to legally justify limits on personal freedoms, including the right to protest.

“This is why it’s really worrying and why the U.K. and what’s just happened is an example, a very concrete example, but just one example,” she said. “There is this trend for the past 20 years to legally justify the limitation on human rights — from freedom of speech to freedom of movement during the pandemic to the right to protest today.”

The British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, has so far defended the law and the police, telling broadcasters on Tuesday that his government had simply given officers “the powers that they need to tackle instances of serious disruption to people’s lives.”

“The police will make decisions on when they use those powers,” he added.

But the arrests raised broader questions about a measure that the United Nations rights chief, Volker Türk, had previously described as deeply troubling and incompatible with Britain’s obligations to freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly.

“This law is wholly unnecessary as U.K. police already have the powers to act against violent and disruptive demonstrations,” Mr. Türk said in an April statement.

British legal experts have also expressed deep worry about the law, a stance many have held since before it was passed earlier this year. Adam Wagner, a leading human rights lawyer, had provided evidence to a government committee ahead of the passage of the bill warning of the threat to the right to protest. In a series of posts on Twitter on Tuesday, he called the bill “too wide and too rushed” and said it was now “causing the chaos for liberties many predicted it would.”

The coronation security operation was one of the biggest in the near-200-year history of London’s Metropolitan Police Service, and senior police officials said before the weekend that they welcomed the broadened powers of the new legislation.

Some 64 people were arrested during the operation, the police said, including 52 whom officers were concerned would disrupt the event, breach the peace, or “cause a public nuisance,” among other issues.

But by Monday evening, the police had expressed “regret” at the arrest of some anti-monarchy protesters on Saturday, who they said were held because officers suspected they might try to lock themselves in position.

“Locking on” — protesters attaching themselves to objects, buildings or other people — has been a tactic in several recent protests. The new law makes being “equipped for locking on” an offense.

It also makes it an offense to obstruct construction on transportation networks or to interfere with major infrastructure.

Graham Smith, the chief executive of Republic, an anti-monarchy group that staged the largest protest in central London on Saturday, was arrested alongside several fellow activists — despite, he said, having discussed plans for peaceful protests with the police for months. The Home Office had also sent a letter to the group and other activist organizations ahead of coronation day outlining the new law.

Mr. Smith said that the group was seeking legal advice with a view to filing a lawsuit against the police.

The arrests that the police said they regretted came hours before Republic’s planned demonstration, after officers saw people unloading items from a van near the coronation procession route at 6:40 a.m., they said in a statement released Monday night.

The police found placards and “items which at the time they had reasonable grounds to believe could be used as lock-on devices,” according to the statement, and arrested six people “on suspicion of going equipped for locking on.”

The protesters said that the devices were in fact luggage straps to fasten banners. After the police investigation failed to prove that anyone had intended to use the straps to lock on, all six had their bail canceled and no further action would be taken against them, the police said.

“We regret that those six people arrested were unable to join the wider group of protesters in Trafalgar Square and elsewhere on the procession route,” the statement added.

Mark Rowley, the head of the Metropolitan Police Service, defended his officers’ actions and their use of the new law in an opinion article published in The Evening Standard on Tuesday, saying that these six arrests were the only ones made under that legislation.

Matt Turnbull, one of the activists arrested at the van, said that officers had visited his home on Monday night to return his phone and offer an apology on behalf of the police.

“If you’re somebody who is an anti-monarchist, May 6 was the most important day,” Mr. Turnbull said, adding that he would never have done something to jeopardize his right to join a legal protest. But instead of being allowed to demonstrate, he said, he was handcuffed, put in a police van and spent 14 hours in a cell.

“The definition of ‘locking on’ is so broad that the police could detain you for wearing a belt,” he said. “How do you determine someone’s intention of what they are going to use it for? It’s a very scary thing.”

London’s Metropolitan Police Service has already faced a trust crisis in recent months after a series of scandals, including the murder of a young woman by a serving police officer, and Professor Choukroune said that the new legislation added additional pressures to police protests and could prove troubling to rehabilitating their image.

The government has also been in a period of uncertainty after a quick succession of prime ministers in the last year.

“The contrary to what the state thinks it produces, it produces a crisis of legitimacy,” she said of the new legislation. “There is already a lot of distrust in the government, in the police, from the public. And it’s not going to generate more stability, on the contrary, is going to generate more protests.”

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