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By Bishop of Leeds
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Police Accused Of "Heavy Handed, Punitive" Handling Of Anti-Royal Protests After Queen's Death

An anti-monarchy protestors was moved away from Westminster on Monday (Alamy)

6 min read

Civil liberties groups have expressed concern over the treatment of republican protestors following a number of reports of police intervention into anti-royal demonstrations in the days following the Queen's death.

Several people have been arrested at proclamation ceremonies for King Charles III in recent days, leading to warnings from civil liberties groups about the impact on free speech and protest rights.

On Sunday, history tutor Symon Hill was removed by police from a proclamation ceremony for King Charles III in Oxford and arrested after shouting "Who elected him?". 

In a blog post describing the incident, Hill claimed he was told by officers he had been arrested under the Police, Crime and Sentencing & Courts Act, recently introduced legislation that was heavily criticised by MPs while it was being debated in the Commons. Its detractors believed the legislation would criminalise protests.

He said "two or three people near me told me to shut up," but insisted that he "didn’t insult them or attack them personally, but responded by saying that a head of state was being imposed on us without our consent".

Hill said he was later de-arrested and was taken home in a police van, but was told he would be asked to attend a further interview and could later be charged.

In a statement, Thames Valley Police confirmed a man had been arrested under the Public Order Act and was "engaging with us voluntarily".

"A 45-year-old man was arrested in connection with a disturbance that was caused during the county proclamation ceremony of King Charles III in Oxford," they said.

"He has subsequently been de-arrested and is engaging with us voluntarily as we investigate a public order offence."

Several similar incidents in recent days have prompted concerns over the response from police, including footage of an individual holding a sign reading "Not my King" being forcibly removed from outside Parliament by police on Monday morning.Jodie Beck, policy and campaigns officer at civil liberties charity, Liberty, said: "Protest is not a gift from the State, it is a fundamental right. Being able to choose what, how and when we protest is a vital part of a healthy and functioning democracy."

She added: "Whoever you are, whatever your cause, it is vital you are able to stand up for what you believe in without facing the risk of criminalisation.

"It is very worrying to see the police enforcing their broad powers in such a heavy-handed and punitive way to clamp down on free speech and expression."

Police in Scotland have taken a similar response, with a woman arrested and charged on Monday in connection with a breach of the peace after holding up an anti-monarchy sign in Edinburgh where the Queen's coffin is currently situated.

A man was also removed by officers after he heckled Prince Andrew during the procession of the Queen's funeral cortege through the Scottish capital on Monday.

One bystander who witnessed the incident told a reporter from PoliticsHome's sister publication Holyrood, who are covering events on the ground in Scotland, that the police had stepped in after the crowd began to turn on the man.

“There was a huge police presence on the Royal Mile – the biggest I’ve ever seen for anything in Edinburgh. Just as the coffin passed by the Canongate, a guy shouted something at Prince Andrew," they said.

"The police were on him in a flash and pulled him away, which was probably just as well as people in the crowd were beginning to turn on him. It was quite shocking, as before that happened it had been really quiet and respectful.”

Privacy group, Big Brother Watch, said they believed the arrests were likely to be "unlawful". 

"As millions come together to respect Britain's traditions and national identity it is important to remember that the right to freedom of speech is the foundation of British democracy and to disrespect it at this moment, when our country is under an international lens, would be to flagrantly disrespect the values that define our country," a spokesperson said in a statement. 

Last year thousands of people took to the streets last year as part of 'Kill The Bill' demonstrations against the controversial legislations, which critics said would criminalise protests.

The legislation, which was drawn up by ministers largely in response to disruptive protests by Extinction Rebellion last year, was voted through the Commons in April, despite fierce criticism from opposition parties.

Labour MP Rachael Maskell told PoliticsHome the use of the new legislation to remove protestors for expressing their opinions was "deeply troubling".

"It is deeply disturbing that individuals are being arrested and removed for simply expressing an opinion," she said. 

"The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act criminalises people for their free expression, clashing with our pride in living in a society which enables us to all express ourselves." 

"If these minor acts, no matter if you agree with their content or not, are causing arrests, then the applications of this new Act is as deeply troubling as we feared it would be.

She added: "From a woman's right to vote to cancellation of debt in developing countries, the advancement of trade union rights to the call to save our fragile planet, political progress has depended on civil society rising up to challenge the status quo and to advance society.

"For just expressing an opinion about the governance of our country should not be met by the forces of the law, but by the ears of those who have the power to bring about change."

Ruth Smeeth, CEO of Index on Censorship, told PoliticsHome she found the arrests in Scotland "deeply concerning".

"The fundamental right to freedom of expression, including the right to protest, is something to be protected regardless of circumstance," she said.

"These arrests in Scotland come at a time of national debate around the new Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Act covering England and Wales, legislation that Index raised serious concerns about during its passage through Parliament."

She added: "People across the country and beyond continue to mourn the loss of the Queen, a loss felt keenly by so many. However, we must guard against this event being used, by accident or design, to erode in any way the freedom of expression that citizens of this country enjoy."

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