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Camping campaigners in byelaws battle with MoD

As with many military sites across Britain, land at AWE Aldermaston has been subject to specific military byelaws for many years. While these theoretically criminalise a range of otherwise non-criminal activities, they have not been enforced. At bases around the country where byelaws have been used against protesters they have almost universally fallen following legal challenges (most famously at Greenham Common where thousands of cases were thrown out after the byelaws fell).

However, as of 31 May 2007, spanking new byelaws for AWE Aldermaston came into force. Undoubtedly the MoD will be hoping that they have learnt from previous byelaws disasters and now removed all technical, human rights, and other inherent flaws. [1]

Human rights

The new Aldermaston byelaws were quietly put out to consultation in April 2006, and in their original form, would have prohibited all forms of protest at AWE Aldermaston. The proposed byelaws would have denied the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association as they criminalised meetings, assemblies and processions (sections 7 (f) and (h)). They would also have prohibited handing out leaflets and holding placards, thus denying freedom of expression.

Aldermaston Women's Peace Camp(aign), and supporters, made submissions to the MoD's Byelaws Review Committee under the Human Rights Act, and succeeded in gaining the removal or amendment of several of the originally proposed "criminal" activities

Protecting the MoD from peacewomen

The consultation on the Aldermaston byelaws took place as the Terrorism Act 2006 enabled the provisions of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCRAP) to apply to Aldermaston and a number of other military sites in the UK. To date these have been used once against a protester at Aldermaston. It remains unclear as to whether the Attorney General will give assent for the prosecution to proceed. [2]

Defence Estates commented at the time that "The Military Lands Byelaws and the SOCAP powers, although capable of being used independently, are mutually supportive and together provide a layered form of legal protection for the Ministry of Defence." [3]

Implications for protest

The amended byelaws, although theoretically allowing protest at Aldermaston, now threaten the very existence of the women's peace camp - which has been protesting outside the nuclear weapons factory every month for the past 22 years. The new byelaws criminalise camping and lighting "bonfires" (the women use a camp fire to keep warm and cook). The byelaws also criminalise things as simple as attaching banners to the fence at Aldermaston, which they have traditionally done to alert passers by to the nuclear weapons factory, or as vague as "causing annoyance to any other person" [4]

It is impossible to predict whether the new byelaws will be strictly enforced, however, presumably the MoD didn't go to all the bother of creating new ones in order for them to sit on a shelf gathering as much dust as the previous version!

Challenges

Women from Aldermaston Women's Peace Camp(aign) have called for a celebratory camp birthday cocktail party on Saturday 9 June. This will be the first camp weekend after the byelaws come into force and we would like to invite as many women as possible to join us. Of course this will be a fantastic party in its own right, but we would also like to send a clear message to the MoD that women will continue to occupy space outside AWE Aldermaston, continue resisting Britain's nuclear weapons programme, and continue claiming the right to protest. [5]

On another front, a legal challenge to the byelaws has been mounted and there has been positive legal advice on the prospects of its success. Treasury Solicitors have been informed that despite the welcome changes to the byelaws, they remain disproportionate and are incompatible with the Human Rights Act. The next step will be to bring a Judicial Review.

We don't know whether the police will enforce the bylaws at the time of the party. If they do, women should be able to attend the party and not risk arrest provided they heed police statements at the time and move to safe pitches. That said, the more women that are prepared to risk arrest the greater the effectiveness of the gathering.

Do come anyway: it is the women's cocktail party of the year!
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NOTES:
1 Read the full byelaws at http://www.opsi.gov.uk/si/si2007/20071066.htm
2 See http://www.aldermaston.net/news/169
3 See http://www.aldermaston.net/news/107
4 See AWE Byelaws, Section 7 (2)
(f) camp in tents, caravans, trees or otherwise;
(g) attach any thing to, or place any thing over any wall, fence, structure or other surface;
(j) act in any way likely to cause annoyance, nuisance or injury to other persons;
(k) light bonfires or do anything likely to cause an outbreak of fire;
5 See http://www.aldermaston.net for party invitation