Pettingill: Police should warn protesters
Former Attorney-General Mark Pettingill is urging police to issue clear warnings to people considering blocking MPs from entering the House of Assembly when it reconvenes next month.
The government backbencher said it was up to the Bermuda Police Service to ensure citizens were aware they would be breaking the law and could be arrested if they locked arms outside Sessions House, as happened on December 2, when demonstrators shut down a planned parliamentary debate on the controversial airport redevelopment deal.
“The authorities should be putting people on notice,” Mr Pettingill told The Royal Gazette,. “It is only right that people are informed as to what their legal rights are and where they are crossing the line.
“The line is clearly that you can have a peaceful protest, you can gather and assemble for the sake of that protest, you are entitled to freedom of speech to say what you want to say [but] you are not allowed to interfere with the legislature in any way or the officers of the House of Assembly, not at all. If you stand in front of me, preventing me going into [Parliament], you are breaking the law.”
On December 2, protesters prevented MPs from entering the House and police officers in riot helmets used pepper spray on the crowd — an action which prompted criticism and which will be reviewed independently by a senior police officer from the United Kingdom, at the Governor’s request. Officers at the scene were heard telling people their behaviour was unlawful by reading from a prepared sheet but Mr Pettingill said such warnings should have been issued in advance of the protest.
Senior police commanders drafted an operational order to prepare for the protest on November 30, as revealed under public access to information last week. But though the plan cited the offences of disturbing and interfering with the legislature, it did not propose publicising them to the public in the days before December 2. Mr Pettingill said a different approach was needed for February 3.
“People need to be warned. I believe the main duty of that falls to the police. You know it [blocking Parliament] has happened before. You don’t want it to happen again. You don’t want to get to the stage where you are pulling out pepper spray.
“You need to say ‘have people been properly warned?’ It’s good law enforcement, it’s good social management.”
He said he was “vehemently opposed” to the use of pepper spray and argued that police officers should instead focus their energies on gathering evidence for potential prosecutions.
Activists who are against the airport plan have suggested there will be another protest on February 3, with union leader Jason Hayward telling a public meeting last week he did “not expect any different activity” to the events of last month and that the People’s Campaign pressure group committed to “peaceful, non-violent protesting”.
Mr Pettingill claimed Mr Hayward was encouraging people to shut down Parliament again and that was “wrong”.
He said the Bermuda Public Services Union president and others should be “advising people properly about what is a lawful, constitutional protest and what your legal rights are in relation to that and what you are fundamentally not allowed to do under the law”.
The Parliament Act sets out the penalties for the offences of interference with and disturbance of the legislature, ranging from a six-month jail term and/or a fine of $1,680 to a two-year prison sentence and $16,800 fine. No one has so far been charged with any offences under the Parliament Act in relation to December 2. One person has appeared at Magistrates’ Court accused of assaulting a police officer.
A police spokesman told this newspaper yesterday: “The police are developing plans for the third of February when the House of Assembly resumes that will include provisions to allow peaceful protests to take place, should any be held on that day.
“They will also enable the business of the House of Assembly to be conducted normally. The BPS will share the plans with the public in advance of the next sitting of the House.”
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