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Justice is blind - Judge Victor Blake ignores compelling video evidence to convict
Between the 20th and 24th of February 2012, 19 campaigners were tried at a 'special sitting' of Belmullet District Court, for alleged offences arising from protest against the Corrib gas project. Most of those tried were for Section 8 and 9 of the Public Order Act. Section 9 is obstructing 'the free passage of a person/vehicle’ in a public place and section 8 is failure to obey the directions of a Garda.
Overall the judge came down very heavily on the defendants. The hearings began only one week after public criticism from the minister for Justice Alan Shatter against what he called “protest tourism”. One campaigner received a prison sentence and three others received suspended sentences. Fines for all cases totalled €8350.
Another Corrib special sitting
Day 1 Monday 20th Feb
The day started tensely as the campaigners’ defence council, Leo Mulrooney, wanted to start with a test case, and provide lots of evidence of 'reasonable excuse.' Superintendent Diskin and Judge Victor Blake wanted to start with the shorter simpler cases, and this is what happened.
The first campaigner was able to step up with 20 minutes notice, and argue that he was 'not guilty' because of 'reasonable excuse.' His case was for climbing on a truck carrying materials, and he was charged with Section 8 and 9. He argued that he was against the project for environmental, public safety and misuse of national resources. He noted that 'no-one would go as a tourist destination to an oil refinery.' He was fined €250 for Section 8 and €200 Euros for Section 9.
The second campaigner's case was for blocking a road used by Shell with a tripod, and he was charged with Section 8 and 9. He pleaded not guilty, and the defence council argued that he was unable to comply with directions to leave the area, as he was dangling in a tripod. He was fined €300 for Section 8 and €250 for Section 9.
The third campaigner's case was versus Garda Cohen, for locking on and blocking the entrance to Shell's Aghoos compound, and she was charged with Section 8 and 9. She pleaded not guilty, and the defence argued that the public road was not blocked, only the entrance to the compound. She took to the stand to read a statement of mitigation stating she could not stand by watching 'the unwanted invasion by a multinational that threatens homes and livelihoods.' She was fined €300 for Section 8 and €300 for Section 9.
The fourth campaigner's case was versus Garda Nolan, for locking on and blocking the road to Shell's Aghoos compound, and she was charged with Section 8 and 9. She pleaded not guilty on the grounds she could not self-release from the lock on. She was fined €300 for Section 8 and €300 for Section 9.
The fifth campaigner's cases were for obstructing trucks carrying materials for Shell, outside the Refinery at Ballinaboy, and he was charged with Section 8 and 9 on two separate occasions. His defence council noted that on the first occasion was not aware of what Section 8 and 9 warnings were, and on the second case he could not hear them as he was wearing headphones and listening to music. He was fined €150 for the first Section 8 and €100 for Section 9 and €190 for the second Section 8 and €175 for Section 9.
The sixth campaigner's case was for criminal damage to the Guard's shoulder epaulette on a fluorescent jacket, whilst attending a protest against Shell's work, and he was charged with Section 2. Video evidence looked clear in refuting the charge, and there were contradictions in Garda evidence. The campaigner was fined €220. The case will be appealed in the circuit court.
At the end of the day, the judge had convicted 13 times, and the 6 defendants had been fined a total of €3,035.
Day 2 Tuesday 21st
The first campaigner's case on day two was for Section 8 and 9 on three separate occasions. The first was for a lock on with a woman living locally, on 27th July. He took the witness box to give evidence of 'reasonable excuse.' He stated his background was in environmental ethics, and questioned the application of the law in Erris. He was convicted of Section 8 and 9, and fined €250 for the first Section 8 and €200 for Section 9.
His second case of the day was for obstructing trucks carrying materials for Shell outside the Aghoos compound. During the Garda video evidence you can clearly hear a campaigner asking 'how come IRMS are allowed to block traffic? How come Section 9 doesn't apply to them?' He was convicted of Section 8 and 9, and given a two month sentence, suspended for one year for Section 8, and fined €200 for Section 9.
His third case of the day was also for obstructing trucks, and another campaigner was also charged for the same offence. The defence council noted that the prosecution was claiming it gave three warnings, and yet only two were noted in the Garda notebook, and no time of arrest was recorded. The defence also pointed out this was at a time when a number of other incidents were occurring. He was acquitted of the Section 8 charge, but convicted of Section 9, and fined €200. The other campaigner also pleaded not guilty on the grounds that the correct warnings were not issued. She had no previous convictions, was convicted of Section 8 and 9 and fined €200 for Section 8 and €175 for Section 9.
In her second case of the day, the campaigner was charged with Section 8 of the Public Order Act, for locking on. The defence council argued that it was unlawful as the warning had included three directions, instead of only two, commenting that Garda cannot say 'desist, self-release, leave the area, cut your hair, get a job.' The campaigner took the stand to argue for 'reasonable excuse,' and held the court spellbound as she talked of her concerns regarding the water. She noted how campaigners from the tar sands in Canada, Mexico, the Amazon basin, India had visited the area to share their experiences of 'their homes destroyed, their water contaminated.' She received a €250 fine for the second Section 8 charge.
The third cases were for locking on using arm tubes, and they were charged with Section 8 and 9. They pleaded guilty, and had to provide references of their good character to the court. One had her reference accepted, and made a €200 donation to Trocaire, and had her charges struck out. The other woman had to provide more references to be scrutinised by the court the following day.
The fourth cases of the second day concerned Terence Conway, local resident and Shell to Sea spokesperson, who was charged with Section 8 and 9 on two separate occasions. The first case was for locking on in November 2011, and Mr Conway took the stand to argue 'reasonable excuse.' During his cases, Mr Conway spoke and gave evidence about the injustices faced by the community in Erris, including a clip of footage showing campaigners showing the Gardaí that IRMS were driving without tax and insurance, and then being ignored or pushed out of the way. The other showed a dredger working for Shell drop rocks and gravel almost on top of a campaigner, which could have killed him, and then Gardaí arresting the protester rather than the dredger driver. Mr Conway concluded by saying 'I offered to comply when Gardaí, partners in crime with Shell, are held to account.' He was convicted of Section 8 and 9, and sentencing was deferred until his next case was heard.
Mr Conway's next case was also for a lock-on, blocking the road used by Shell, on the way to the Aghoos compound. In this case Mr Conway showed his footage from the well known incident at McGrath’s pier. Mr Conway stated 'What we have been subjected to by the actions of Shell and the State is worthy of a dictatorship. The police are working as an arm of the oil companies.' When the Judge responded that 'This is a law-abiding country and there is justice for all in the country,' about 25 local residents and supporters walked out of the courtroom in protest. When a handful re-entered the courtroom and stood with their backs to the Judge in defiance, Gardaí were fairly heavy handed in throwing them out of the courtroom without any formal request from the Judge to do so or orders of contempt of court. Soon after, about 15-20 extra Gardaí arrived on the scene and blocked off the entrance to the courtroom. The crowd waited in the lobby of the courthouse waiting for the case to finish surrounded by a circle of Gardaí, and were not allowed back inside.
Meanwhile, in the court, Mr Conway was sentenced to 3 months imprisonment for the first Section 8, and a €200 fine for Section 9. He got another 3 months imprisonment for Section 8, and a €200 fine for Section 9. He is currently out on bail pending an appeal in the Circuit Court. The woman in the lock-on with Terence Conway in November, who pleaded guilty, was asked to provide references to the court before sentencing.
Day 3 Wednesday 22nd
The day started tensely, as Judge Blake would not allow a Stenographer (typist) hired by the campaign to use an audio recording device, as is common practice. She was only allowed to make shorthand notes in a notebook. When asked for a reason by the defence council, the Judge ruled that he did not want it falling into ‘the wrong hands.’
The Judge began by scrutinising references for the two women who had pleaded guilty the previous day, and this included asking one of the references to give evidence of her good character in the witness box. Eventually satisfied, he threw the charges against them out, and accepted their €200 charity donations.
The first case of the day involved three campaigners who climbed into a truck carrying peat for Shell outside the Refinery at Ballinaboy, and they were charged with Section 8 and 9. They pleaded guilty to the charges, and had to provide references to the court. They were all given the Probation Act (no convictions and no fines). One of the campaigners had another case, for D-locking her neck to a truck, and received a €185 fine for Section 8 and €130 for Section 9.
The second case involved a Section 2 criminal damage charge, and two separate Section 8 and 9 charges. Shell's private security IRMS guard John Gillespie took the witness stand, and testified that he had detailed notes regarding the incident. The defence council asked to see the notes, and after lunch Mr Gillespie admitted he had no such notes. The campaigner was acquitted of the Section 2 charge, due to inconsistent evidence from IRMS, and the Section 8s and 9s were deferred until a later date in March.
The final case of the day involved a campaigner facing 11 charges, ranging from Section 8 and 9s through to Section 2 criminal damage and Section 2 assault on a Garda. The first case was for climbing onto a truck carrying materials for Shell at the Refinery in Ballinaboy. He pleaded not guilty, and took the witness box, to make his case for 'reasonable excuse.' He noted that 125,000 tonnes of peat is being removed over 4 months, and this means 400-500 trucks moving in the area daily. He talked about complaints to the Garda Ombudsmen not being taken any further. He apologised to the driver of the truck. He was convicted of Section 8 and 9. Sentencing was deferred until all of his cases had been heard.
At the end of Wednesday, 12 campaigners had been convicted of 33 charges, with fines totalling €5,825. Thursday and Friday were taken up with two more campaigners’ cases, with 21 charges between them.
Day 4 Thursday 23rd
Day 4 picked up where we left off yesterday, with the same campaigner facing charges of Section 8 and 9, also for climbing on truck carrying materials for Shell. He was convicted of Section 8 and 9, and sentencing was deferred until the end of all his cases. His next case was for climbing on a tractor on the road outside Shell's Aghoos compound. He pleaded not guilty, with the defence noting that traffic could move freely on one side of the road. He was convicted of Section 8 and 9.
The Gardaí proceeded with a case for Section 2 assault, for an incident occurring at a protest at Shell's offices in Belmullet. 18-20 protesters attended, and Shell's private security IRMS had formed a cordon around them. The prosecution began with evidence from Gardaí stating he had seen the defendant strike Garda O'Halloran in the groin, and being questioned regarding why it took four months for Gardaí to charge the defendant with assault. Garda O'Halloran took the witness box and testified that the campaigner had made a clear movement of his shoulder, so that his elbow connected with her. The campaign's video footage was shown to the court, and clearly showed the campaigner being grabbed by IRMS and swung round involuntarily, having no control on the direction of his body, and thus colliding with Garda O'Halloran. He was convicted of Section 8 and 9 of the Public Order Act, but acquitted of Section 2 assault.
His final case was for Section 9 and Section 2 criminal damage, but the Gardaí withdrew the Section 9, and proceeded with Section 2. The case referred to a protest at the Shell's Aghoos compound, where fencing was taken down. The campaigner pleaded not guilty, and noted that there were residents in Aghoos, who would authorise this action on the grounds of their objection to the project. He was convicted of Section 2 criminal damage.
The campaigner had no previous convictions prior to these cases, and his father took to the witness box to proclaim his good character. For the first Section 8 and 9 he was fined €175 and €100, and the second Section 8 and 9 €250 and €150. For the third Section 8 he was sentenced to 5 months imprisonment suspended for 12 months, and fined €150 for the Section 9. For the final Section 8 he received a five month sentence suspended for 12 months, and the Section 9 received a €150 fine (all public order fines 6 months to pay). For the Section 2 charge he was fined €500 (9 months to pay) and sentenced to 8 month jail suspended for 2 years. His total fines came to €1,475.
Day 5 Friday 24th
The final day of the 'special sitting' was special indeed as the last campaigner was asserting his right to defend himself and do it in Irish. He had come under considerable pressure from the judge to use a Solicitor as the week drew on, but stood his ground. In the morning the State pulled out of one of the cases leaving four left to fight.
His first case was for attending a protest at Shell's offices at the Belmullet Industrial Estate. 18-20 protestors attended, and Shell's private security IRMS had formed a cordon around them. The defendant pleaded not guilty to the Section 8 and 9 charges. The defendant noted that no-one else was arrested on that day, and pleaded not guilty on the grounds he had been singled out, that he was unable to leave the area, that it was not a public area due to the cordon, that he not been dealt with in Irish, and that he had 'reasonable excuse.' The Judge acquitted him.
His second case was for attending a protest where trucks were obstructed outside the Shell Refinery at Ballinaboy. The defendant pleaded not guilty to the Section 8 and 9 charges, on the grounds the arrest was illegal, he was not in a public place, he was not dealt with in Irish, and he had 'reasonable excuse.' He took the witness box to outline his objections to the Corrib gas project, noting that it does not have the permission of the community, that Ireland receives no tax for the gas, and that the planning process was split into three parts which is illegal. He was convicted of Section 8 and 9, and sentencing was deferred until all of his cases were heard.
His third case was for attending a protest where a truck was obstructed outside the Shell Refinery at Ballinaboy. The defendant pleaded not guilty to the Section 8 and 9 charges on the grounds that it was a targeted arrest. He had video evidence to this effect. He was convicted of Section 8 and 9.
His fourth case was for attending a protest where Shell traffic was obstructed outside Shell's Aghoos compound. The defendant pleaded not guilty to the Section 8 and 9 charges, on the grounds that he had video evidence showing that he was not given a warning, and that it was an illegal arrest. After playing his own video evidence, the judge agreed with him and dismissed the case.
The judge sentenced the last campaigner to two 6 month jail sentences suspended for a year and fines amounting to €1150. These convictions might be appealed in the circuit court due to the “dodgy” nature of the state’s cases. This is video footage of one of the “crimes” and arrest for which one of the 6 month suspended sentences was imposed: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rYSCWK5luq4
The events in Belmullet courtroom played out against the background of occupation back in Kilcommon parish. It was the third week since Shell work resumed at Glengad, which extended haulage for the onshore pipeline on the narrow L1202 road through the villages of Aghoos, Pullathomas and Glengad. Each day starting at 7.30am convoys of lorries trundle through with heavy Garda escort. Along the route the Gardaí stop, detain and in some cases push people off the road to facilitate the advancing convoy. All of this has been done without invoking any law.
The contrast in the heavy sentencing for campaigners who obstruct Shell, with the seeming impunity with which the Gardaí and Shell obstruct everyone else has could not be clearer. It has added to the sense of injustice now inherent in the Corrib gas controversy.