Todays decision affirms that when people peacefully break the law out of a moral obligation to prevent things such as the fossil fuel industry, they should not be sent to prison.
Three anti-fracking campaigners are to be immediately released from prison following an appeal at the court of justice after their sentences were viewed to be “manifestly excessive”.
The three men, Simon Roscoe Blevins, Richards Roberts and Richard Loizou, were jailed for public nuisance offences on 27th September 2018 and were the first anti-fracking protests to be sentenced to prison in the UK or campaigning against the controversial industry.
They will released later today from Preston prison and have have been given a conditional discharge of two years.
The three activists released a statement from inside Preston prison. “Todays decision affirms that when people peacefully break the law out of a moral obligation to prevent things such as the fossil fuel industry, they should not be sent to prison," it said.
"The fracking industry threatens to industrialise our beautiful countryside. It will force famine, flooding and many other disasters on the world's most vulnerable communities by exacerbating climate change.
"Fracking is beginning right now. So there has never been a more critical moment to take action. Your planet needs you. We encourage everyone is who able to, to join us this Saturday for a mass demonstration at the UK’s first fracking site next to Blackpool.
"And to look up activist network Reclaim the Power to find opportunities to take direct action or volunteer in vital support roles.”
Speaking in court, the judge said: "In our judgment the appropriate sentence was a community order with a significant requirement of unpaid work.
Right to protest
"But these appellants have been in custody now for two weeks, the equivalent of a six-week prison sentence. As a result, and only for that reason, we’ve concluded that the only appropriate sentence is a conditional discharge."
The three - a teacher, soil scientist and piano restorer - oppose fracking due its damaging effects on the local community and its contribution to climate breakdown.
The defence was lead by Kirsty Brimelow QC, the head of the international human rights team at Doughty St Chambers.
Human rights organisation Liberty intervened in the case on grounds that the “disproportionate length of the sentences breaches the activists’ fundamental human rights and will have a chilling effect on peaceful protest”
Emma Norton, head of legal casework at Liberty, said: “The right to protest is fundamental to democracy, and civil disobedience plays a critical role in voicing the conscience of a community when the law falls short of justice.
“When people break the law, they rightly expect to face fair consequences, but the disproportionate punishment of peaceful protesters betrays our values as an open society where we can stand up to power, and risks deterring people from exercising their right to dissent.”
The men were originally given up to 16 month custodial sentences after stopping a convoy of lorries delivering drilling equipment to the Preston New Road fracking site in July 2017.
A solidarity demonstration to 'Free The Three' took place outside The Court of Appeal before the appeal began. More than 200 people held red roses in the air in solidarity with the people of Lancashire.
As the verdict was heard, cheers and celebrations could be heard outside the court with the crowd chanting 'free the three'. Attendees included Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley, with solidarity messages being sent from Emma Thompson and John McDonnell.
Palton Loizou, Richard's father, said: “I’m over the moon, justice has been done today. We should never have been here in the first place. But what is done is done and now we must concentrate all our efforts on making sure fracking is stopped in the UK. This is an emergency and fracking is a disaster.”
Sent to prison
"I will be attending the demonstration at Preston New Road on Saturday and I want every person my age and who is retired to be there - not for my son, but for their children and their grandchildren.”
Rosalind Blevins, mother of Simon, read a statement after the announcement. “I’d like to say a huge thank you to the many thousands of supporters - friends, strangers, academics, politicians, trade unions - who condemned the harsh sentence and cried out for the right to peaceful protest. Personally it has meant so much to have your support and belief in us and the three”.
Michelle Easton, partner of Rich Roberts said: “We’re absolutely ecstatic this is the best possible outcomes. A massive injustice has just been righted. Massive thanks to Kirsty Brimelow QC and the legal team”.
Lancashire resident Nick Danby travelled down to attend the appeal in support on the men. Speaking outside court, he said: “We have followed this case very closely and were horrified when these three men were given immediate custodial sentences.
"These three should never have been sent to prison in the first place and we are delighted to hear today that their appeals have been upheld and that they are to be released with immediate effect.
"The people of Lancashire invited the men to join our protest on the frontlines of fracking in the UK. In a mature democracy, it is essential that citizens are entitled to peaceful protest.
"If peaceful protest is not tolerated then we no longer live in a democracy. Our best wishes and thanks go to them, their friends and their families."
Fracking began at the Preston New Road site in Lancashire on Monday after seven years delay due to fierce local opposition. On the same day, the site entrance was blockaded for 12 hours.
Campaigner’s highlighted the irony of launching a new fossil fuel industry the week after the release of the United Nations IPCC report calling for an urgent phase out of fossil fuels to avoid dangerous climate breakdown.
In June 2015, Lancashire County Council rejected Cuadrilla’s application to drill, voting nine to five against. This decision was overturned by central government in 2016, with final consent given by the Energy Minister, Claire Perry, earlier this summer.
The appeal comes at a time where controversial plans to allow shale gas exploration to proceed without planning permission are under consultation by the government. Almost two dozen Conservative MPs are threatening to rebel against the government’s proposal if it is taken to a parliamentary vote.
Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist.