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UK climate activists jailed, with controversial protest restrictions coming

The jailing of nine climate activists is the latest chapter in a standoff between protesters and the U.K. government that has led to controversial new legislation limiting disruptive demonstrations.

(CN) — Nine climate protesters were jailed in the United Kingdom this week for contempt of court, following a campaign of civil disobedience which has disrupted the country's motorway network for months.

In defiant scenes outside London's Royal Courts of Justice on Wednesday, activists from the group Insulate Britain claimed that their actions were justified, and said that the verdict demonstrated "cowardice" on the part of the government.

A High Court judge determined that "the balance between the protesters' right to protest and the right of members of the public to use the highways is to be determined not by the say-so of the protesters, but according to the law."

Since September, more than 150 Insulate Britain protesters have been arrested a total of 854 times whilst blocking critical transport arteries, such as London's orbital highway, the M25, and the Port of Dover, by gluing themselves to roads. Their actions have sparked frequent confrontations with commuters, and led to the government securing four separate High Court injunctions against the group to prevent the obstruction of traffic.

The group is calling on the government to fully fund the insulation of all houses in the U.K. by 2030, arguing that British housing is the least energy efficient in Europe, with home heating contributing to nearly 15% of the country's emissions.

The governing Conservative Party contained a commitment in their 2019 general election manifesto to invest 9.2 billion pounds ($12.3 billion) "in the energy efficiency of homes, schools and hospitals," however the recently released Heat and Buildings Strategy omitted this pledge.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has described the demonstrations as "pathetic, dangerous, irresponsible, counter-productive," and warned that "anyone who causes misery to motorists may face prison."

Those imprisoned include Emma Smart, 44, who has vowed to go on hunger strike during her incarceration, and Ben Taylor, 27, who was given the maximum six-month sentence permitted by the injunction due to what the judge described as "inflammatory" submissions to court.

Taylor had declared that if he were not imprisoned he would "go out and block the highway at the earliest opportunity," adding "if you somehow manage to stop all non-violent protests, then things will only turn violent."

The Insulate Britain protests are the latest chapter in an ongoing conflict between environmental activists and the U.K. government - an impasse which has generated controversial legislation aimed at restricting future campaigns of civil disobedience.

The saga began back in April 2019, when the eco-protest group Extinction Rebellion blocked key junctions and bridges in central London for two weeks, using mass arrest as a tactic to undermine the capacity of law enforcement to halt the disruption. More than 1,000 arrests were made during the 11-day demonstration.

Extinction Rebellion demanded that the government declare a "climate emergency" and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2025. Research conducted by polling company YouGov suggested that the disruption had a significant impact on public opinion, with the environment rising in salience to become the third most pressing political issue among the British public.

A second round of protests organized by the group in October 2019 caused further disruption in the capital city, with activists obstructing highways, bridges, government buildings, airports, banks and media organizations. But the campaign also faced strong criticism for its disruption of the London Underground network, which sparked scenes of violence between activists and commuters.

In response to the demonstrations, London's Metropolitan Police introduced an unprecedented blanket ban on the protests. The ban was subsequently found to be unlawful by the High Court, which ruled that the police had acted beyond their powers.

The apparent inability of the police to halt the disruption in 2019 has since led to the introduction of wide-ranging and controversial legislation by the U.K. government, designed to reform the criminal justice system.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill proposes giving the police powers to set legal restrictions on when and where a demonstration can be held, how many people can be in attendance and how loud it can be. It also gives the Home Secretary the power to determine whether a protest is causing "serious disruption" and thus should be restricted.

U.K. government officials insist they remain committed to the right to peaceful protest, but argue that disruption on a widespread scale cannot be tolerated and the police must be given the means to restore order. Home Secretary Priti Patel has said protesters were "exploiting gaps in the law which have led to disproportionate amounts of disruption."

“There are numerous legitimate ways in which activists can peacefully campaign for meaningful change, and it is right that those who instead choose to pursue a path of anti-social, dangerous disruption should face the prospect of jail," she said.

However, human rights group Liberty condemned the legislation, arguing that it represents a "concerted attack on the right to protest" which "gives the government of the day an expansive power to effectively declare the kind of protests and causes it deems inconvenient or unacceptable and provide the police a license to limit them."

When it was first published in March, the legislation provoked nationwide protests, with demonstrators marching in defiance of coronavirus regulations restricting public gatherings. The protests escalated into scenes of unrest in the city of Bristol, with police vehicles set alight and a police station vandalized.

Rival political parties have also criticized the proposals, with the Labour Party describing the bill as "draconian."

Yet opponents of the bill were fewer in Parliament, with the legislation completing its passage through the House of Commons with a comfortable majority of 100. It is currently making its way through the secondary chamber, the House of Lords.

In light of the recent Insulate Britain protests, the legislation has been further amended to introduce criminal disruption prevention orders. The new orders are designed to prevent individuals with a history of protest-related offenses from attending future demonstrations, by allowing courts by impose restrictions on their activities and movements.

Despite the incoming restrictions, and the threat of custodial penalties created by numerous injunctions, Insulate Britain activists have vowed to continue their campaign of disruption until the government acts on their demands.

Defending himself in court, Taylor, who received the longest sentence of the group, was unrepentant.

"We obviously didn’t do this for personal gain," he said. "We did take responsibility for our actions, and I did them in an attempt to mitigate the suffering of people in this country who cannot insulate or adequately heat their homes."

Further court proceedings against other Insulate Britain activists are expected.

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