On Friday, February 10, four members of Scientists for XR, an offshoot of Extinction Rebellion, were acquitted following a successful appeal against earlier charges of criminal damage.
Professor Colin Davis and Dr Emily Cox, both from Bristol, alongside Ben Benatt and Pete Knapp, were charged in August 2022 with criminal damage for glueing themselves to the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in April 2022.
Five other scientists took part in the action, also glueing their hands to the building and pasting posters on the windows. Despite being charged with the same offence, the five were acquitted at their first hearing in October, whilst Colin, Emily, Ben and Pete were alone found guilty.
Following the verdict at Southwark Crown Court on Friday, Emily said; ‘Of course I’m pleased that we were finally acquitted for this charge. However, I’m also frustrated at the shocking waste of everyone’s time.
‘This process has taken up five days of court time prosecuting peaceful protesters exercising their rights.
‘This is time which could otherwise have been spent addressing the serious backlog of cases where people are in custody awaiting trial for much more serious offences.’
Why are scientists taking action?
Three of the scientists – Emily, Stuart Capstick and Charlie Gardner – explained why they took action in an April 2022 article in The Conversation.
Scientists, they argue, must face the truth that ‘evidence alone, even if expertly communicated, is very easily ignored by those that do not wish to hear it.
‘If we are to help bring about the transition away from fossil fuels that the world so urgently needs, we are going to have to become much harder to ignore.’
They go on to say they targeted BEIS in particular because ‘as the government department responsible for climate change, it should be leading the transition away from fossil fuels. Instead, through enabling and promoting new fossil fuel extraction, it is doing the opposite.’
Why were they acquitted?
During the appeal hearing, Judge Rimmer noted the significance of the location of the protest and the role of BEIS in issuing new oil and gas licences. He also noted how little damage had actually been done to the building.
In his closing remarks, Judge Rimmer said: ‘the protestors held heartfelt and real concerns about climate change and these are very important issues.’
Colin said: It is a relief to have the Crown Court recognise that our actions were not criminal, but rather constituted legitimate political protest. The true criminals are the fossil fuel companies that are destroying our climate in their ruthless drive to maximise profits, and the governments, including our own, that aid and abet this vandalism on a global scale.’
What about the right to protest?
In a press release, Extinction Rebellion UK said the verdict highlights the ‘inconsistencies of the legal system’ whereby people charged with the same crime can receive opposing sentences.
Bindmans solicitor, Hester Cavaciuti, who represented Pete Knapp at the appeal hearing, said: ‘This prosecution should never have taken place, let alone proceed to a two-day appeal hearing in the Crown Court.’
She continued: ‘This case shows that despite the government’s attempts to curtail freedom of speech and criminalise protests, the courts are still prepared to protect the right to protest, and will act proportionately when dealing with peaceful protestors that should never have been prosecuted by the CPS in the first place.
The verdict comes as the Public Order Bill makes its way through Parliament. The bill, if passed into law, will make specific offences of locking-on, tunnelling and obstructing national infrastructure like airports.
Under the original bill, police would have the power to preemptively stop a protest if they believed it might cause disruption, powers of suspicionless stop and search, and powers to arrest journalists reporting on protests. The bill would also have cracked down protesters blocking roads.
All of these provisions were thrown out in a debate during the bill’s third reading in the House of Lords on February 7.
During the debate, Conservative Lord Patten said he found it ‘astonishing that we’re proposing in this country the sort of thing that we would denounce if the Chinese Communist Party were doing it in Hong Kong.’