50-Year-Old Convictions of Anti-Apartheid Activists Quashed
Professor Jonathan Rosenhead, Christabel Gurney OBE and veteran activist Ernest Rodker were among a group of protestors convicted in 1972 for public order offences
The 50-year-old convictions of several anti-apartheid activists, who protested, were arrested, prosecuted, tried and convicted, have been overturned at appeal today.
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 in turn 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.
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 for the airport. They were later convicted for obstruction of the highway.
Only during the Inquiry in Spring 2021 did it emerged that among them was an undercover police officer, known as ‘Michael Scott’. He was part of the undercover police unit the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) which, replaced in the 2000s by the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), spied on more than 1,000 political groups since 1968.
The three men are represented by Mike Schwarz, Partner at Hodge Jones & Allen, alongside Matthew Ryder KC of Matrix Chambers and Owen Greenhall of Garden Court Chambers.
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 were 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 group’s lawyer, Mike Schwarz, a partner at Hodge Jones & Allen, said: “These convictions should never have happened. The deployment of undercover police into the anti-apartheid movement was unjustifiable, legally and morally. It was a political decision. That egregious act, taken 50 years ago, would never have been uncovered had it not been for the tenacious efforts of activists and others to expose police misconduct and force the authorities to act. I have no doubt that many other abusive acts by the State remain uncovered’.