The UK just sent three men to prison for peaceful civil opposition

A closer look at the case that gave fracking protesters an excessive jail sentence.

– Charlotte Threipland

What does it mean for our country when citizens are jailed for peaceful activism? Last week Preston Crown Court jailed three men for protesting against the activity of controversial fracking giant Cuadrilla. The three men – a piano restorer, teacher and soil scientist – were given hefty sentences of 15-16 months in prison for causing a ‘public nuisance’.

Their actions were motivated by a concern for the widespread impact of hydraulic fracturing (fracking). As well as contributing to climate change and harming local countryside, fracking releases toxic chemicals into the air and water. The exact health effects of these chemicals remains to be seen but they include carcinogens. A recent study found that women who lived near fracking wells had low birth weight babies. Fracking has been halted or banned in Scotland, Wales, the Netherlands and New York State because of the potential damage it causes.

Against this background, were these men justified when they obstructed a fleet of Cuadrilla lorries carrying drilling equipment?

Although the jury found them guilty, they were not given the whole picture. By law they were unable to even consider the mens’ motivations because the offence for which they were being tried (the antiquated charge of ‘public nuisance’) is narrow and only allows for consideration of the disruption caused.

When it came to sentencing, the court found their political convictions to be an aggravating factor: “each of them remains motivated by an unswerving confidence that they are right”.

The court did not attach importance to the fact that these men were exercising their fundamental rights. A barrister for one of the protesters, Kirsty Brimelow QC said that “the points I made to Preston Crown Court were focused upon the importance of people’s rights to peaceful protest and the long history that this country has of accommodating civil disobedience. It sets us apart from countries with poor human rights records such as China, Turkey, Bahrain and many other countries.”

These were the first protesters to be imprisoned following a criminal trial since 1932. …

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