Anti-Apartheid protestors’ convictions quashed after 50 years

Thursday 19 January 2023

Owen Greenhall of the Garden Court Protest Team represented three anti-apartheid movement campaigners whose cases were referred to the Criminal Cases Review Commission by the Undercover Policing Enquiry. 

Owen was instructed by Mike Schwarz, Partner at Hodge Jones & Allen and led by Matthew Ryder KC of Matrix Chambers. 

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Three anti-apartheid protestors had convictions from 1972 quashed after evidence emerged that an undercover police officer was amongst those who stood trial. These are the first cases to be referred to the Criminal Cases Review Commission by the Undercover Policing Enquiry.

London School of Economics Professor Jonathan Rosenhead, Christabel Gurney OBE and veteran activist Ernest Rodker were part of a group of 14 protestors demonstrating against the British Lions rugby team due to fly from Heathrow airport for a tour in apartheid South Africa. The protestors blocked a coach carrying the team as it left the Star & Garter Hotel in Richmond heading for the airport. They were later convicted of obstruction of the highway.

Evidence heard in the Undercover Policing Inquiry in Spring 2022 established that among those prosecuted was an undercover police officer using the alias ‘Michael Scott’. He was part of the secretive undercover police unit the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) (later becoming the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU)) which spied on more than 1,000 political groups since 1968.

The cases of Rosenhead, Gurney and Rodker were the first to be referred by Sir John Mitting, chair of the Undercover Policing Inquiry, to the panel set up to consider miscarriages of justice. That panel then referred the convictions to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), who in turn referred them to the Crown Court for appeal. The prosecution did not oppose the appeals.

Owen is also instructed in the Undercover Policing Inquiry.

Jonathan Rosenhead, Christabel Gurney and Ernest Rodker, in a joint statement, said:

“We are delighted that our convictions have been overturned, albeit 50 years after it occurred. We were arrested, charged and convicted in 1972 for an offence we did not commit – obstructing the highway. We were in a private hotel car park when we and others blocked the progress of a bus carrying rugby players bound for apartheid South Africa.

“The undercover policeman who had infiltrated our group was charged and convicted under his false name. He was party to key discussions with our lawyer about our defence, which hinged on the location of our action. At the trial, the arresting police asserted that we were in the roadway, and we were convicted on that basis. Neither counsel nor magistrate was informed that “Michael Scott” was a police officer.

“We were among the first to be targeted by the undercover police unit when it was set up. We express our solidarity with the many others who suffered outrageous intrusions into their lives over the following decades.

“The police, and in particular undercover police, were used then in an attempt to undermine civil society opposition to reactionary government policies. The current government is enacting draconian legislation which reinforces police powers to suppress protest, whether on climate change or arising from the cost-of-living crisis. These methods are entirely inconsistent with the functioning of a free society.”

The case has attracted national media attention, including in The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Evening Standard.

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