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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 May 2005, 15:04 GMT 16:04 UK
Can Asbos curb the right to protest?
By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News

Anti-social behaviour orders have been trumpeted by the government as the answer to society's loss of respect. But is there a danger they will instead be used to curb its freedoms?

Lindis Percy
Lindis Percy says she has always carried out peaceful protests

Civil liberties campaigners are celebrating after a district judge refused to impose an Asbo on a 63-year-old peace protester.

The Ministry of Defence Police Agency (MDPA) had sought an order banning Lindis Percy from an area around a secret American base in North Yorkshire.

But District Judge Roy Anderson instead ruled he was firmly against Asbos being used as "a club to beat down the expression of legitimate comment".

The powers were intended to tackle "oafish behaviour", he said, not Mrs Percy's non-aggressive protests.

'Abuse' of law

She was, however, placed under an eight-week curfew and is thought to be the first peace protester to be electronically tagged - a sentence she intends to appeal.

It was based on her conviction on four counts of obstructing a police officer in the execution of his duty and one of obstructing the highway at the Menwith Hill base.

Leaving Harrogate Magistrates' Court, Mrs Percy described the attempt to impose an Asbo on her as "an abuse of the legislation".

Over-broad powers taken in the name of crime and terrorism are ripe for this kind of abuse
Shami Chakrabarti
Liberty director

Prime Minister Tony Blair put a pledge to tackle crime and disorder at the heart of his third term agenda in Tuesday's Queen's Speech.

But civil liberties groups say Mrs Percy's case highlights a growing willingness by the authorities to use new powers against protesters rather than the "yob culture" they were designed for.

Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti condemned the Asbo hearing as "nothing short of a scandal" and welcomed the judge's ruling.

"It should provide a salutary lesson to a new parliament faced with a Queen's Speech stuffed with new coercive legislation," she said.

"Over-broad powers taken in the name of crime and terrorism are ripe for this kind of abuse."

Democratic right

Liberty warns that half-a-dozen relatively recent pieces of legislation are being misused by the authorities to "diminish our right to protest".

Protest group Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) also dismissed Mrs Percy's attempted prosecution as a "flagrant misuse" of legislation.

Sign at boundary of Menwith Hill site
Mrs Percy opposes Menwith Hill's use in a US missile defence system

Chairwoman Kate Hudson said: "Asbos are designed to prevent anti-social behaviour and prevent people unnecessarily disrupting other people's lives - not to undermine the democratic right to protest."

Earlier this year, an Asbo was successfully brought to bar a leading animal rights activist from going near animal laboratories for the next five years.

In Mrs Percy's case, the MDPA and North Yorkshire Police argued her demonstrations had upset personnel leaving the Menwith Hill site.

But the grandmother, joint co-ordinator of the Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases, argues her "very quiet, very peaceful" protest was a far cry from intimidation.

Each Tuesday evening for the past five years, she has stepped briefly in front of vehicles leaving the site, holding an upside-down American flag painted with anti-US slogans.

'Valuable tool'

She told the BBC News website: "Really this is politics. Our demonstrations are always peaceful - I'm a Quaker so it's really important, it is a deep-held belief about non-violence."

In the course of 25 years of campaigning she has been arrested more than 150 times and spent 161 hours in prison "for the right to protest that is a human right".

Protesters scale the fence at Menwith Hill in 2001
Menwith Hill has been the site of many protests in the past
The MDPA said it was satisfied Mrs Percy's eight-week night-time curfew and tagging reflected the seriousness of her actions at Menwith Hill.

The force would "always uphold the rights of people wishing to carry out lawful demonstrations but if anyone commits a criminal offence we will seek to take action," a spokesman said.

The Home Office does not comment on individual cases but said Asbos were a "valuable tool" to protect communities blighted by anti-social behaviour.

Whether this means they will increasingly be used against protesters in the future remains to be seen.

In the meantime, Mrs Percy has vowed to carry on the fight against US plans to use Menwith Hill and the nearby RAF Fylingdales early warning centre in its "Star Wars" missile defence system.

"You can't suppress the human spirit," she said. "We'll get the appeal going as soon as possible."

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