Northern Ireland

Prosecutors warned PSNI using serious organised crime legislation on Black Lives Matter protestors 'highly exceptional course of action'

Black Lives Matter protest in Customs House Square, Belfast Picture Mal McCann.
Black Lives Matter protest in Customs House Square, Belfast Picture Mal McCann.

MORE Black Lives Matter protestors have been called in for questioning under serious organised crime laws - just days after the PSNI confirmed it had taken no action against demonstrators who gathered at Stormont to protest against coronavirus restrictions.

Human rights lawyers say the continuing pursuit of "black and non-national" protestors has left police chiefs with "questions to answer" over alleged "racial profiling".

The PPS told The Irish News it had made it clear to police that the Serious Crime Act "was aimed at serious crime and it would be a highly exceptional course of action to rely upon this legislation".

Phoenix Law, which is representing people who have been interview by officers under caution, say their clients are almost exclusively black, with the exception of one non-Northern Ireland national.

Last week Chief Inspector Christian Bradley insisted officers had dealt in a way that was "consistent with our approach in all such cases" after crowds of people protesting against the Executive's Covid-19 restrictions were "spoken with... and where appropriate explained and encouraged people to comply with directions to prevent any breach of the peace and to ensure that the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) Regulations NI 2020 were followed".

But solicitor Sinead Marmion said the statement contrasts with the reality for her clients as this week has seen yet more told to report to a police station for an interview under caution for the June 6 event.

Two files have been sent to prosecutors and more are being compiled.

A PPS spokeswoman said police "approached the PPS for prosecutorial advice in relation to the potential offences that may apply in respect of those suspected of organising protests involving serious breaches of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations 2020".

"Advice was provided that, in the event that the protests went ahead, an offence of aiding and abetting a breach of Regulation 6 would fall for consideration.

"It was further advised that an offence contrary to section 44 of the Serious Crime Act (encouraging the commission of a breach of Regulation 6) may be committed but that this offence was aimed at serious crime and it would be a highly exceptional course of action to rely upon this legislation in the context of a less serious offence which can be only be prosecuted in the Magistrates’ Court."

Ms Marmion said: "Questions need to be answered in relation to profiling people that have been questioned for speaking at and attending the protest.

"From my experience the majority of people are black. The latest person who has been called was with a friend who was white and decided to speak at the end.

"Police are saying it is because by speaking they were keeping people there in breach of the regulations. What does that mean for buskers and street preachers? We are not seeing them pursued in this way."

A PSNI spokesmand said "a very small number of people were, on pre-prosecutorial legal advice, cautioned under Section 44 of their Serious Crime Act in relation to the BLM protests of 6 June 2020.

"The use of this legislation was specifically due to their suspected role in organising the protests in contravention of the Health Protection Regulations. This was the only criteria for this decision and was in no way related to any other criteria or consideration.

"The Police Service of Northern Ireland is committed to discharging its policing responsibilities in an inclusive, non-biased, lawful and proportionate manner."