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"Enemies of the State" - Draconian Jail Sentences for Anti-Fracking Protesters

Global Witness has published its annual report on "How governments and businesses silence land and environmental defenders." Among their examples is this one from the long-running protests against Caduilla's fracking foray into Lancashire.

In September 2018, UK citizens Simon “Roscoe” Blevins,
Richard Roberts, and Rich Loizou, were sentenced to 15 and 16 months in prison, in a case that sparked concerns that the legal system was being used by government and business to shut down legitimate environmental protest in Britain.

The ‘fracking three’ were protesting at a site run by the energy firm Cuadrilla, which the Financial Times reports has spent upwards of US$253 million on its bid to commercially produce shale gas in the UK. The fracking industry has faced fierce criticism for expanding its efforts to profit from fossil fuels, with government approval, at a time when the UK says it is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.

In October 2016, the central government overturned a Lancashire county council decision and granted Cuadrilla permission to extract shale gas at two wells.Since operations began in January 2017, more than 300 protesters have been arrested.

The three men were the first people to be jailed in the UK for protesting against fracking. In an interview with Global Witness, Blevins observed, “The crime of ‘public nuisance’ can be used a lot more indiscriminately than other crimes. There has been a lot of scaremongering that even turning up with a placard can put you in trouble and stop you getting jobs, which of course has a deterrent effect on future protest.”

The activists were freed in October 2018 after the Court of Appeals rejected their sentences as “manifestly excessive,” but are still attempting to overturn their conviction, which Blevins said “sets a dangerous precedent.” A fourth protester received an 18-month suspended sentence after pleading guilty.

The defendants’ legal team have also raised concerns over an apparent conflict of interest in the case. The judge who sentenced them is reported to have links to the oil and gas industry. Judge Robert Altham’s family business is JC Altham and Sons, a company reported to be part of the supply chain for Centrica, an energy multinational which has invested tens of millions in fracking. The judge's sister had also reportedly written a letter that called on Lancashire council to approve fracking.

In recent years, the UK legal system has increasingly been used by the oil and gas industry to shut down opposition. In 2017, the High Court had granted the petrochemicals company Ineos an injunction meaning that anyone interrupting it or its supplier’s activities faced large fines or imprisonment. This was overturned in April, 2019, as lawyers argued it eroded people’s right to protest.

Meanwhile the authorities have been accused of using anti-terrorism procedures to target environmental activists. Anti-fracking activists were included in the government’s “Prevent” counter-terrorism programme, for example. In July 2018, a local government report investigating extremism in Greater Manchester falsely suggested that anti-fracking activists "groomed" a 14-year-old boy in what activists labelled "dark PR."