Avon and Somerset Police pay damages to protesters wrongly fined

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Police had asked protesters to join an online demonstration rather than gather outside Bristol Magistrates' Court on 25 January

A police force has apologised and paid damages to four people who were fined for protesting outside a court during the last lockdown.

Avon and Somerset Police had warned people gathering outside Bristol Magistrates' Court on 25 January that they would be breaking the law.

Four others accused of criminal damage to a statue of slave trader Edward Colston appeared at the court later.

The force said it accepts it "misinterpreted the regulations".

It said its officers held "an honest belief" that Rolland Dye, 68, Taus Larsen, 43, Ros Martin, 60, and Paula Richardson, 61, were committing offences when they were arrested and later given fixed penalty notices.

Avon and Somerset Police said officers were "motivated purely by a desire to protect the health of the public at the height of the pandemic".

The force now accepts it "curtailed" the people's rights of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

In the days leading up to 25 January, it had urged people to join online protests and not gather outside the magistrates' court.

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Law firm Bhatt Murphy, acting for Ms Martin and Ms Richardson, said all four protesters had worn masks and observed social distancing.

It said that the protest had involved playing music, writing chalk messages on the pavement and holding placards.

Mr Larsen said his treatment by police was "ridiculous".

"I wasn't posing any risk to the public, but the police put me in a position which increased the risk to me and to the officers dealing with me."

Ms Richardson said the police's apology showed that "peaceful protest must never be silenced by the government or the police at any time", while Ms Martin said "the locking up of peaceful protesters should never happen."

Mr Dye said: "Like a lot of Bristolians I think that statue should have come down a long time ago and I wanted the 'Colston Four' to see there were people supporting them when they arrived at court."

The statue of 17th-Century slave merchant Colston was pulled down from a plinth and thrown into Bristol Harbour on 7 June.

Jake Skuse, 36, Rhian Graham, 29, Milo Ponsford, 25, and Sage Willoughby, 21, later appeared at the magistrates' court on 25 January.

Following other court appearances, they remain on bail and their trial is due to start at Bristol Crown Court in December.

Mr Skuse, of Farley Close, Bristol; Ms Graham, of Colston Road, Bristol; Mr Ponsford, of Bishopstoke, Hampshire, and Mr Willoughby, of Gloucester Road, Bristol, were charged with causing criminal damage in December last year.

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