Demonstrators and police officers scuffle during a protest in London on Saturday. TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS


Forceful handling of demonstrations against proposed new powers criticized

Human rights groups have slammed the British police for an allegedly heavy-handed response to demonstrations in the United Kingdom on the weekend against proposed legislation that they fear will greatly curtail people’s right to protest.

Campaigners were particularly angry about the arrest of two independent legal observers late on Saturday, following a march through central London.

In all, 107 people were arrested during the so-called Kill the Bill protest in the UK capital.

The BBC reported that other towns and cities also saw demonstrations on Saturday, including Birmingham, Bournemouth, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Weymouth.

While many demonstrations were peaceful, the main protest in London ended in disarray. It began with a march from Hyde Park to Parliament Square and speeches attacking the proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, but boiled up into conflict between police and a small number of demonstrators who refused to disperse.

The Guardian Newspaper said scuffles broke out in the Aldwych area of central London.

The paper quoted Sam Grant, head of policy and campaigns at the human rights group Liberty, as saying the arrest of legal observers amounted to “an intimidatory tactic to deter protest”.

“Legal observers help to make sure protesters’ rights are respected and police act within the law,” he said.

“If officers believe they are acting lawfully, they should welcome this scrutiny. Continuing to arrest independent monitors is a scandalous attack on the right to protest and demonstrates exactly why people are taking to the streets against the government’s plans to give the police even more powers.”

Grant said the two legal observers were from an organization led by black lawyers called Black Protest Legal Support, which provides free legal help to protesters.


Raising concerns

A spokesperson for the group said: “We’re really concerned by the continued and systemic use of violence against protesters and independent legal observers.”

The unnamed spokesperson said the observers from the group were wearing high-visibility vests that identified their role.

The group said they were complying with police instructions when they were arrested.

Both were released a few hours later.

The Metropolitan Police confirmed a man and a woman acting as legal observers had been arrested. A spokesperson for the police said they were detained under health protection regulations imposed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The police said the 107 people arrested during the London demonstration were detained for a range of reasons, including alleged breach of the peace, violent disorder, assault of a police officer, and breaking lockdown rules.

Sky News said 10 police officers were injured during the protest, although none seriously.

Metropolitan Police Commander Ade Adelekan said most protesters complied with social distancing rules but some seemed to be “intent on (causing) disruption to law-abiding Londoners”.

“Despite repeated instructions from officers to leave, they did not and, amid increasing levels of disorder, arrests were made,” Adelekan said.

He added that “the behavior of a few individuals” should not be allowed to “taint the good behavior of the majority” who attended demonstrations against the proposed legislation, which critics claim would open the door to nonviolent protests being prevented for being too noisy or a nuisance to others.

The government says it needs such legislation in order to deal with mass protests, such as those organized in 2019 by the environmental group Extinction Rebellion, which brought central London to a standstill for several days.