Three British journalists received jail sentences of three years each last Friday after being found guilty of publishing in their newspaper information liable to 'incite' others to commit 'criminal damage'.
In a judgement which has sent shockwaves through Britain's environmental and animal rights movement, Judge David Selwood called Saxon Burchnall-Wood, Noel Molland and Stephen Booth "terrorists" as he sentenced them to lengthy prisons terms after a 12-week trial at Portsmouth Crown Court. All three are appealing.
The trial centred around the radical Green Anarchist newspaper, which regularly publishes reports of environmental and animal rights actions which have taken place around the UK. The prosecution accused the Green Anarchist journalists of 'conspiracy to incite persons unknown to commit criminal damage'.
The case has been dubbed the 'Gandalf Trial', an acronym of Green Anarchist and ALF (Animal Liberation Front), whose press officer Robin Webb and Support Group newsletter editor Simon Russel were both acquitted. Another Green Anarchist defendant, Paul Rogers, had his case 'severed' due to a witness dispute - but it will be resumed in the new year.
Freedom of speech organisations fear the outcome of the Gandalf trial could have a major 'chilling' effect on the reporting of social and environmental campaigns by the UK media - who could in future be accused of 'incitement' for merely reporting on the activities of protesters.
Jo Makepeace from the weekly 'alternative news' publication SchNEWS said: "This ludicrous sentence is just trying to scare us into silence, but the last thing the defendants would want is for people to stop taking part or writing about direct ation. As far as we are concerned it is business as usual."
A spokesperson from Corporate Watch, a OneWorld Online partner which publishes a magazine aimed at informing anti-corporate campaigners, told OneWorld: "The laws used in this case could be used to imprison thousands of people who are publishing information about ethical and environmental issues. The Gandalf case has major implications for press freedom in the United Kingdom."
Over seventy representatives of the alternative press issued a statement calling attention the the Gandalf case in September. "Without a fearless and free press there can be no informed discussion and participation in public life," it said. "It is vital that the press unite to defend the basic freedoms under attack in this case. It is not for the police to determine the limits of our discussions."
The magazine Index on Censorship, also a OneWorld Online partner, campaigns to promote freedom of expression world-wide. News Editor Michael Griffin told OneWorld: "We think it is an outrageous intrusion on press freedom to send people down for three years just for printing words."
Major questions have been raised by the defendants as to the fairness of the judicial procedure in the Gandalf case, especially with regard to the involvement of the British security services. The first day of the trial was held in secret, while the judge and the prosecution decided which documents were too sensitive to be released either to the jury or to the defence.
'Public Interest Immunity Certificates' - the use which famously consigned two innocent men to jail in the Matrix Churchill case - mean that vital secret evidence may have been withheld from the defence. "National security is obviously much more important than natural justice," a Gandalf Defendants Campaign spokesperson told OneWorld. "So much for a free society."
The defence also claims that the military connections of Judge Selwood, who spent most of his career as a Major-General in the British Army, made him unfit to hear the case. The defendants also claim that five of the jurors had military or arms trade connections. "It's no co-incidence that Portsmouth was chosen," said one defendant. "It's a highly conservative military-dependent area with the second highest conviction rate in the country." John Wadham, of the National Council for Civil Liberties in the UK, told OneWorld: "We're especially concerned about the use of conspiracy and incitement laws in this case - we belive that in general people should be held to account for what they do, not what they agree to do. This is particularly important with regard to freedom of expression."
The Gandalf case was reportedly the culmination of 'Operation Washington' - which at its height involved some 60 police officers, and saw 55 raids across the UK in 1995-6. The Gandalf defendants claim that they were infiltrated by a secret police 'agent provocateur' who assisted in the writing of many of the articles later found to be 'inciting'.
The defendants campaign also claims that the case was an effort to define environmental activism as 'terrorism' in order to give a new role to the MI5 security service in post-Cold War UK politics.
A Hampshire police spokesperson contacted by OneWorld refused to comment, saying that any statement would prejudice further court hearings surrounding the case.
The Gandalf Defendants Campaign can be contacted at PO Box 66, Stevenage, SG1 2TR, United Kingdom.
To write to the prisoners send a letter to HMP Winchester, Romsey Road, Winchester S022 5DS. Always include prisoner numbers: Saxon Burchall-Wood CK4321, Noel Molland CK4322, Stephen Booth CK4323.