British laws that practically criminalize peaceful dissent are on gruesome display in a trial that began on June 24 at the Southwark Crown Court in London. The case, involving organizers with the direct action climate group Just Stop Oil, should give the free world pause, as it shows how far down the road of repression democracies are willing to go to protect the hegemony of fossil fuels. 

The five defendants in the case are charged with conspiracy to commit a public nuisance. The case alleges they recruited and directed their fellow citizens to blockade the M25 motorway outside London for four days in November 2022. According to prosecutors, the blockade created a “public nuisance” by snarling traffic and impeding motorists from getting to schools, funerals, flights at airports and visits to doctors. They estimate the delays resulted in a “notional economic loss” of roughly 750,000 pounds, and a cost to the police of almost 1 million pounds. Under laws passed in the United Kingdom last year and in 2022, the defendants in the case could face up to 10 years in prison, simply for organizing a march that halted traffic.

No one has denied that blockading a motorway in protest of fossil fuels is disruptive. That is, indeed, the entire point. But the protesters’ defense is that planetary heating will upend much more than the London commute.  The latest and best available science — from the U.N. Environment Program, for example, in its report of November 2023 — shows the world headed for a warming of 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century; some models predict this could arrive by the 2050s, if certain climate tipping points are reached. Three degrees of warming is expected to cause mass death, numbering in the billions. David King, the former chief scientific adviser to the U.K. government, has said that 3 degrees would unleash such monstrous chaos in the Earth system, it would be the end of civilization as we know it. 

And yet, as many other U.K. jurists have done in similar prosecutions, the presiding judge, Christopher Hehir, has rejected the defendants’ request to publicly explain their actions, disallowing all mention of their concerns about carbon emissions and the climate crisis. Hehir is in good company in the British judiciary. His colleague at Inner London Crown Court, Judge Silas Reid, has jailed protesters for as much as seven weeks for uttering the words “climate change” in the courtroom, as if they had yelled “fire!” in a crowded theater. 

The case, involving organizers with the direct action climate group Just Stop Oil, should give the free world pause.

At this late date in the climate crisis, the trial and the laws it has put on display mark another steep descent in a decades-long trend of ever-more elaborate and absurd denialism enforced by repression. “Whenever we object and try to talk about why we organize, the judges shoot us down. None of it is admissible,” Roger Hallam, one of the defendants in the M25 matter and co-founder of Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion, told me. “We are citizens with the right of necessity in common law to engage in disruption to prevent far greater criminality.”

The London prosecution follows a pattern across the developed world in which political spaces are closed to discussions of the existential threats posed by a superheating Earth system. But no country among the Western democracies has passed laws as prejudicial to climate protest as the United Kingdom. That includes the United States, where almost two dozen states have legislated harsh sentences for disrupting the operations of oil pipelines and federal laws now label as terrorism even the mildest acts of infrastructure sabotage. The British Parliament has outpaced the U.S. by leagues in mandating harsh sentences even for peaceful civil disobedience. In the U.K. today, hanging a cloth sign off a bridge can get you a three-year prison sentence. That happened to Morgan Trowland, a 40-year-old engineer, after he climbed the anchorage of the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge in October of 2022 and unfurled a banner that stated “JUST STOP OIL.” Trowland’s was said to be the longest prison sentence for climate protest in British history.

Hehir made clear the extent of the government’s draconian position when, on July 2, he ordered the arrest of a group of 11 protesters who had gathered on the street outside Southwark Crown Court as the M25 blockade trial proceeded. Peacefully, quietly, they had done nothing more than hold signs that stated, “Juries deserve to hear the whole truth” and “Juries have the absolute right to acquit a defendant on their conscience.”  Swept from the street, they were brought before Hehir in the morning as he interrupted the trial to address them. “I have had you arrested because you’ve been standing with signs or placards on the street outside the court and may have committed criminal contempt by your actions.” He did not explain why standing on a street corner with a sign constituted contempt of court. Presumably it was the messages on the placards that proved offensive, for he ordered them seized as evidence for prosecutors to present in time.  

That afternoon, acting without an attorney, Hallam, who is 58 and once worked as an organic farmer in Wales, mounted what proved to be a hopeless defense before Hehir, who repeatedly admonished him in a series of heated exchanges and frequently excused the jury. 

“In this trial, you are not getting all the evidence and all the facts,” Hallam started, addressing the jury from the witness stand. But Hehir cut him off. “I’m not going to let you make criticisms of the way this trial is being conducted,” he said.

“If you’re not able to hear all the evidence, you cannot be sure of guilt,” replied Hallam. “The evidence will show that I have a reasonable excuse for disruption.”

The public nuisance statutes under which he had been charged do have a caveat, which states that a person with a reasonable excuse for the nuisance may escape prosecution. Now Hallam wanted to read the language of that statute to the jury.

“No, you’re not, Mr. Hallam,” said Hehir.  He proceeded to do so anyway, but Hehir talked over him, “No, Mr. Hallam, I’m afraid that I control this court.”

“I haven’t finished —” 

“No, Mr. Hallam —”

Activists from the group Just Stop Oil are arrested as they slow the traffic in London on Oct. 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

Hallam turned to the jury. “You have the right to make a decision on the basis of your conscience.”

“Mr. Hallam, be quiet! Take the jury out!” 

The jury was excused, and Hehir shot into the defendant. “Your behavior is coming close to contempt. I’ve given you latitude. I’ve invited you to say what your reasonable excuse is. Instead, you proceeded to read out the law, which is not allowed by barristers and certainly not by witnesses.”  

The jury was brought back in, but Hallam was unmoved from his line of attack. “Objective evidence that needs to be given to the jury in this case is that continued emissions of greenhouse gasses will produce mass death, is already producing mass death —”

“No, Mr. Hallam! Jury!” And the jury was whisked from the room a second time. “Your conduct is quite appalling. You are getting very close to acting in deliberate contempt of court.”

The jury returned, and Hallam again ignored the judge’s order, continuing on about carbon emissions and planetary heating and mass death. 

The public nuisance statutes under which he had been charged do have a caveat, which states that a person with a reasonable excuse for the nuisance may escape prosecution.

“Mr. Hallam, be quiet! Be quiet! A lecture about your philosophical views is not going to help your case. Is it your evidence that your sincere beliefs about climate change provide a reasonable excuse for your actions?”

“If you will let me finish my defense,” said Hallam, trailing off.

The jury was excused a third time, and Hallam attempted to continue to address the judge — but Hehir, without a word, stood up and walked out. It was then a room with neither judge nor jury, and there was a long silence. Hehir had asked him to step away from the witness box, but Hallam refused. “Members of the press,” he turned to the courtroom finally, “please note that I have a reasonable right to defend myself. I have no intention of moving out of this spot unless I have a chance to address the jury. That’s a basic human right. The judge has no right to deny my defense.” 

After a half-hour of these fits and starts, Hehir finally allowed Hallam space to run with the jury present — but, he noted, “None of this is relevant,” and later, interrupting Hallam with a sigh, he said, “Members of the jury, just remember that all this is to be ignored.”

Yet Hallam was able, briefly, to score the one point that he believed was most important: a necessity defense.  

“My whole defense rests on the evidence of evil happening and the necessity to stop it,” Hallam told the courtroom. “The basis of my reasonable excuse is that the evidence of existential risk exists, and that provides a reasonable excuse to disrupt, temporarily, the M25. In the whole history of the human race, there’s been no moment in time in which the necessity defense is more justified.” 

Court adjourned for the day with the warning that Hallam was not to continue his “antics.” Early the next morning, on July 3, I reached Hallam by phone at his home, where he was preparing to do just that. He was armed with a 60-page document of evidence about greenhouse gas emissions “leading to mass death,” and he wanted to read it into the record.  “I need to be disciplined. We are in new territory. A British court has never allowed anyone a chance to describe the physical activities of emissions that will lead to mass death. If he doesn’t allow me to do it, then he will have to send me to prison. Because I’m not going to not tell the truth about a crime that’s being committed against humanity.”  

Three hours later, Judge Hehir held fast to his word as Hallam tried to present the document.

“Mr. Hallam, yesterday I gave you great latitude, and that latitude has come to an end.” The jury was sent out, Hehir stood up and left the room, and Hallam was expected to decamp from the witness stand and shut his mouth. He did not move. He seemed a solemn figure, tall and thin and with a graying ponytail. He wore the exact same clothes from the previous day, a pair of tan slacks and a gray plaid button-down shirt. He looked as if he had slept in the clothes. It was 10:21 in the morning, and by 10:45, four court officers had arrived, wearing body armor. Hallam went limp at the witness stand, offering only the passive resistance of forcing the officers to carry him away.  

When the jurors returned to the room, they were not informed that Hallam and Shaw had been arrested.

Hehir returned and bid Hallam’s co-defendant Daniel Shaw, who had allegedly helped organize the M25 blockade, to take the stand. “Yes, we’re back at it,” said Hehir with a satisfied tone and an air of expectation that, with the troublemaker gone, things could breeze along. But Shaw, a subdued 38-year-old from Northhampton, wouldn’t cooperate either, attempting to present his defense along the same lines as Hallam. After 20 minutes, Hehir wasn’t having any more of it, and excoriated him for “another Hallam-style lecture.”  

“Quotes from professors, quotes from environmental groups, quotes from the U.N. — that’s all hearsay, that’s not the law,” he told Shaw.   

“All I want to do is talk about the science,” said Shaw.  

“I’m not going to permit Mr. Shaw to give any further inadmissible evidence,” replied Hehir, who sent out the jury for what seemed the umpteenth time, and himself stood up and was gone. Shaw, who refused to quit the witness stand, was soon hauled off by four court officers in body armor. When the jurors returned to the room, they were not informed that Hallam and Shaw had been arrested. There was no explanation why the two men had disappeared from the proceedings.

Over the trial hung a question: What if the whole dismal affair was illegal under international law? On June 24, the day the trial began, the U.N. special rapporteur on environmental defenders, Michel Forst, revealed that he had been demanding the U.K. government cease its “persecution” of climate activists since March. Forst said he believed the trial could be in violation of the Aarhus Convention on the protection of environmental defenders, which the U.K. signed in 2005.

Shaw filed a complaint to Forst’s office in 2022, following his arrest in November of that year, when as many as 25 police officers raided his home. What led to his arrest was a transcript of a Zoom conference call which a reporter for the arch-conservative Sun newspaper, Scarlett Howes, infiltrated under a pseudonym, secretly recording the conversation and then giving it to police. The Howes recording forms the key evidence against Shaw and his co-defendants, and she was brought in to testify to its veracity as one of only three witnesses for the prosecution. Howes later made a deal with police to have cameras for the Sun on hand for a raid of Hallam’s apartment in London.     

Forst reviewed the documentation and history of the case and wrote a demand letter to David Cameron, the U.K. foreign secretary. The letter, dated March 12 and made public only in late June, asked that “all necessary interim measures be undertaken to halt the alleged persecution, penalization and harassment of Mr. Shaw and to prevent any further occurrences.”   

When the media team for Just Stop Oil approached two U.K. newspapers, the Guardian and the London Times, to publish the documents, the papers balked, saying they feared contempt charges from the judiciary. 

Forst also expressed “serious concern” about “the apparent role played by the United Kingdom private media in bringing about Mr. Shaw’s arrest, and in particular the covert recording of Mr. Shaw’s conversation with other members of the public by a journalist from the Sun. … Infiltration and unauthorized recording of this nature seriously interfere with the private life of members of the public, like Mr. Shaw, and run counter to creating the necessary safe civic space to exercise fundamental rights.”  (Former U.K. government attorney Tim Crosland, who now directs the climate law nonprofit Plan B in London, told me it was no coincidence that one of Rupert Murdoch’s news organs was involved in setting up Just Stop Oil organizers for a fall; Murdoch is an investor in fossil fuel interests.)

Cameron never responded to Forst’s queries. Nor has anyone else in the U.K. government. The British press has refused to touch the Forst documents. When the media team for Just Stop Oil approached two U.K. newspapers, the Guardian and the London Times, to publish the documents, the papers balked, saying they feared contempt charges from the judiciary. 

The government’s pursuit of the M25 case has amounted to a doubling down on persecution. Forst has been so concerned with the situation in Hehir’s court that on July 4, as the proceedings continued with Hallam and Shaw locked away, he attended the trial, noting in a statement that “fundamental pillars of a democratic society are right now in grave peril.”   

His June 24 follow-up letter of protest to Cameron elucidated what this means in human terms. Shaw had already served 113 nights in prison and now he faced two years or more in a cell. All for what Forst described as “participation in a Zoom call to discuss a proposed peaceful environmental protest.”  

“The imposition of such sanction is not only appalling,” said Forst, “but may also violate the United Kingdom’s obligations under international law.” The nation that gave us the Magna Carta, habeas corpus and the world’s first bill of rights is working hard to undo its own noble history.

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