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Halt the erosion of our civil liberties

SO DO European governments view protest as a situation equivalent to a "state of emergency" in which rights to privacy and freedom of movement are expendable?

Pennie Quinton reflects on the background to her European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling that Section 44 of the Terrorism Act is illegal.

Pennie Quinton: © Conscience de Pravity
AFTER SIX years, and with the crucial support of civil rights campaign group Liberty, the ECHR has ruled, in favour of Kevin Gilliam and myself, that section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 is a serious breach of Section 8a of European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to private life.

We were both searched under S44 during protests at the DSEI (Defence Systems & Equipment International) arms fair in September 2003.

I believe S44 was misused to prevent my filming police assaulting protestors at the demonstration. This "emergency" legislation gives police officers the power to stop and search anyone without reasonable suspicion.

It is heavily overused, as statistics produced by Lord Carlile's reviews of the Act and others show.

Through our many hearings over the six years it became apparent that the police are unanswerable for any searches carried out using this legislation.

On the ground it is a relatively paperless power, for ease of use in any situation.

The stop-and-search power given by S44 was intended as an exceptional measure to protect the public from the threat of terrorism. So why are protests in the UK policed using this legislation?

Lord Bingham, ruling against us in the House of Lords, said that British citizens should be prepared to sacrifice a little of their privacy in the face of the current terror threat: but we should be more aware the sacrifice we are being asked to make.

If an officer wishes to search under S44 we have no right to refuse. Refusal means the officer may use "reasonable force" to ensure that the search is carried out. Reasonable force has the following vague definition:

A degree of force that is appropriate in a given situation and is not excessive. The minimum degree of force necessary to protect oneself, ones property, a third party, or the property of another in the face of a substantial threat.

As a freelance journalist I experienced one police officer's interpretation of reasonable force while covering the demonstrations that erupted across the capital on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I was picked up bodily by a PC, then thrown at a moving vehicle passing Charing Cross police station. Meanwhile officers attacked protestors inside awaiting news of those arrested.

Is unquestionable submission to reasonable force yet another small sacrifice of all our civil liberties, and is it one we should be prepared to make in these "exceptional times"?

All professions must be accountable for their actions - including law enforcement.

Being stopped under Section 44 in Docklands at the 2003 DSEI protests prevented my filming protestors running towards the EXCEL centre and being pulled to the ground by officers - despite having shown the WPC detaining me my press card.

Interference with freedom of the press is of course another important factor of my test case.

As members of the NUJ we must work together to prevent the erosion of our civil liberties while continuing to hold the powerful to account with the best of all of our professions' abilities.

The government is extremely unhappy about the ECHR ruling: it has announced it will refer the judgment to the Courtís Grand Chamber. It has until 12 April to lodge this "appeal". Many feel this is a ruse to avoid implementing the judgment immediately - so watch this space.

Last modified: 03 Feb 2010 - © 2009 contributors
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