June 16, 2024

A climate activist has been jailed for six months after pleading guilty to taking part in a peaceful slow march protest on a London road.

The sentence handed to Stephen Gingell, 57, is thought to be the first jailing under a new law that critics say makes anyone walking in a road liable for prosecution for “interference with key national infrastructure”.

Section 7 of the Public Order Act 2023 bans any act that prevents newspaper printing presses, power plants, oil and gas extraction or distribution sites, harbours, airports, railways or roads “from being used or operated to any extent”, with a potential penalty of 12 months in jail.

Gingell, a father of three from Manchester, was one of about 40 supporters of Just Stop Oil who spent about 30 minutes marching on Holloway Road in north London at about 4pm on 12 November, the climate campaign group said.

He pleaded guilty to breach of section 7 at a hearing that same month at Wimbledon magistrates court. On Thursday, his case was transferred to Manchester magistrates court, where he was sentenced to six months.

Just Stop Oil has been campaigning since 2022 for the UK government to stop all new fossil fuel production. The campaign’s “guerrilla tactics” were cited by the Home Office when it introduced the Public Order Act’s tough new anti-protest measures to parliament.

Police began using section 7 to tackle Just Stop Oil’s protests at the end of October, arresting 60 people taking part in a march in Parliament Square. In a campaign of slow march protests carried out by the group between then and 4 December, 470 of the group’s supporters were arrested 630 times, with about half of those arrests under the new law.

A spokesperson for the campaign said: “Section 7 of the Public Order Act 2023, a law drafted by the fossil fuel lobby, was introduced in April by Priti Patel, and covers ‘interference with the use or operation of key national infrastructure’. It seems this government has now made walking down the road, walking on the public highway an illegal act that is worthy of imprisonment.

“How many fathers will be imprisoned before those planning to kill us are stopped? New oil and gas will see millions upon millions lose their homes, livelihoods and lives. Protected by the government, by failed politicians, by the police, those committing genocide continue to walk free, those protesting the killings are banged up. Whose side are you on?”

The human rights organisation Liberty criticised Gingell’s sentencing. Katy Watts, a lawyer at Liberty, said: “It is shocking to see such harsh sentences handed down to protesters. This is yet another unnecessary and draconian law introduced by a government that is hell-bent on discouraging people from standing up for what they believe in. It is a clear attempt to silence people and for the government to hide from all accountability.

“Protest is a fundamental right, not a gift from the state. Government should be protecting our right to protest, not criminalising it.”

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