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UK: New laws restricting 'disruptive protesters' come into force

Rights group criticises new orders saying they are 'a shameless attempt' to further curb protest rights in England and Wales
Just Stop Oil climate activists face police officers during a protest in London in June 2023 (Henry Nicholls/AFP)

Police in England and Wales will have more power to deal with "disruptive protesters" as new orders come into force on Friday amid criticism that they are a "shameless attempt" to further curb protest rights.

The Serious Disruption Prevention Orders were introduced as part of the Public Order Bill passed last year that gave police broader authority to arrest and disrupt certain kinds of protests.

The government has previously cited protests by environmental activist groups like Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain, which have shut down major motorways, as a rationale behind the bill, saying taxpayers paid millions to fund the police response.

But rights campaigners and even the UN's top human rights official have criticised the legislation, saying its measures were vague and wide-reaching, could increase racial profiling and overpolicing, and were unneccessary and draconian. 

Under the new orders coming into force, police can prevent people from protesting in particular locations, using the internet to encourage protest-related offences or from being with protest groups at certain times.

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Orders can be imposed on individuals who have committed protest-related offences on at least two occasions. Examples of such offences include protesters locking or glueing themselves to objects or breaching conditions of an injunction.

A court will decide the specific restrictions of each order, which can last up to two years and be renewed if the person remains a threat. Breaching orders carries a sentence of as much as six months in prison.

"The public has a democratic right to protest and this government will always uphold that," Home Secretary James Cleverly said on Friday.

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"However, recent months have shown certain individuals are just dedicated to wreaking havoc and causing severe disruption to the everyday lives of the public. This is why we have introduced these new powers to ensure that anyone who ignores warnings from our law enforcement cannot continue to cause turmoil unpunished."

Jodie Beck, policy and campaigns officer at the UK-based civil liberties organisation Liberty, told the Press Association that the measures are "a shameless attempt to prevent people from being able to make their voices heard on the issues that matter most to them".

She said the government has repeatedly introduced new laws in recent years that have reduced protest rights.

"Many of these laws are so broad and vague, including locking-on offences, that when combined with these new measures, it could lead to people being banned from protesting entirely due to something as simple as having previously linked arms with other protesters," Beck said.

"Protest is a human right, not a gift from the state. The government should be supporting people's right to protest, not chipping away at it."

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