Student protesters found not guilty of violent disorder

Acquittal comes after a two-year process.

A jury at Woolwich Crown Court has returned a unanimous verdict of not guilty in the trial of Alfie Meadows and Zak King, two students who protested against the introduction of higher tuition fees on 9 December 2010.

Meadows and King were both facing charges of violent disorder, for which the maximum penalty is a lengthy prison sentence. This was the third time they have faced these charges, as the first trial resulted in a hung jury and the second had to be abandoned

Meadows made headline news in the days after the protest, because he received a serious brain injury after allegedly being struck with a baton.

More details to follow.

UPDATE: Alfie Meadows's mother, Susan Matthews, says:

The struggle for justice for my son has finally begun. The whole family has been through two years of total agony. We have been silenced on what happened to our son. We can now move on to the really important thing, which is to get justice for Alfie.

A press release from Defend the Right to Protest, the campaign group that has supported King and Meadows throughout their trial, states:

Zak and Alfie have had to wait more than two years and go through the ordeal of three trials to clear their names. Meanwhile the trial has taken a heavy toll on both Alfie and Zak's families, with Zak having had to watch his younger brother being dragged through the courts on the same false charge.

The trial has also exposed the same pattern of criminalisation and victimisation by the police and CPS, which we also saw played out in the cases of the Hillsborough tragedy and the miners' strike at Orgreave.

Alfie suffered a baton blow to the head at the same protest, which required life-saving brain surgery. While the police have so far escaped any form of accountbility for their actions, Alfie was charged with violent disorder and has had to fight to clear his name before finally beginning the road to justice.

Of the 15 protesters who pleaded not guilty to charges of violent disorder relating to the 9 December 2010 demo, so far 14 have been found not guilty. In a time of unprecedented cuts to public funding, it is atrocious that the police and the CPS have wasted resources in the pursuit of criminalising protesters.

The trial has allowed us to scrutinise what happened on the day of the protest. The peaceful and kettled protesters were charged at with horses and subjected to indiscriminate baton use. When Alfie's barrister Carol Hawley challenged officer Wood, a senior officer in charge of the ground operation on the day, on whether their batons had been used as a last resort, his reply was that the use of a machine gun against protesters would have been the last resort. It transpired that police also considered the use of rubber bullets against the student protesters.

Police in riot gear during the protests of 9 December 2010. (Photo: Getty.)
Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.