Colston Four acquittal raises doubts about 10-year jail term proposal

The acquittal of the Colston Four raises questions about new laws imposing 10-year jail terms for the toppling of statues, regskenners gesê.

Op Woensdag, three men and a woman who helped pull down a monument to the slave trader Edward Colston at a 2020 Black Lives Matter protest were found not guilty by a jury on the grounds that they had a lawful excuse.

After the verdicts, die vervoersekretaris, Grant Shapps, was one of several MPs who condemned “destroying public property”. He said powers in the new police, misdaad, sentencing and courts bill would close a “potential loophole” that limits the prosecution of people who damage memorials.

Die rekening, which is currently going through parliament, would let courts consider the “emotional or wider distress” and increase the maximum sentence to 10 years’ imprisonment regardless of the cost of damage.

Some experts, egter, said such prosecutions, when heard in front of jurors at crown court, could be destined to fail.

Prof Tom Lewis, the director of the Centre for Rights and Justice at Nottingham Trent University, said the bill “will make the trial of those accused of damage to monuments possible only in the crown court, before a jury”.

Hy het gesê: “There is a certain irony in the fact that if the [Colston] defendants had been tried before a magistrate, they may well have been convicted. But in electing to trial by their peers – a right rooted in Magna Carta itself – they secured an acquittal.”

The verdict in Bristol, where the statue had stood, sent a “powerful signal” to Boris Johnson and the home secretary, Priti Patel, who had condemned the toppling of Colston and were ushering through the bill, Lewis said.

Adam Wagner, a human rights barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, said the verdict was a warning to ministers that the bill would lead to exactly the kinds of outcomes they did not want.

“The current policing bill is criminalising peaceful protest," hy het gesê. “What’s going to end up happening is that you are going to have more and more juries acquitting on the basis that they just don’t think it’s right to send someone to prison or give them a criminal record for peaceful protesting, and you’ll have more evidence in these trials of political motives.”

But not all lawyers agreed. Zehrah Hasan, a barrister at Garden Court Law and a campaigner with the Black Protest Legal Support, gesê: “I don’t think we can use this victory as a way to say the courtroom and the law will always make it fair or lead to a just outcome … when obviously there is evidence of discrimination within the jury system, particularly against black and brown people.”

At a press conference after the verdict, Raj Chada, who represented two of the Colston Four and has also acted for Extinction Rebellion activists, insisted the verdict did not set a precedent and did not mean people could take the law into their own hands.

'[The defendants] had a number of defences, but broadly they have a lawful excuse as to why they committed the acts that they did,” Chada said.

“Those valid excuses included their right to free speech, their right to conscience, and that a conviction would be disproportionate interference with those rights. And that they were preventing a crime – it was a criminal offence to keep that statue up because it was so offensive. It is really beyond belief it was up for so long.”

The prime minister said people should not “go around seeking retrospectively to change our history”, byvoeging: “It’s like some person trying to edit their Wikipedia entryit’s wrong.”

Robert Buckland, the Tory MP and former justice secretary, told the BBC he thought the jury’s decision was perverse. “I think anybody watching those scenes cannot fail to be disturbed at the very least, and appalled by what happened,” Buckland said.

“I don’t think we want to see our crown courts becoming political playgrounds – they’re not places for politics, they’re places for the law to be applied and for the evidence to be assessed.”

Jake Skuse, Rhian Graham, Milo Ponsford and Sage Willoughby were cleared after arguing their actions were justified by the offence caused by the presence of the statue in Bristol, the south-west’s most multicultural city.

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