Climate activists and socialists win court battle over police brutality at 2009 climate change summit
Danish police in Copenhagen broke four human rights laws when they made mass arrests of protesters at the climate summit in December 2009, a court has ruled. Protesters were subjected to torture, inhuman and degrading treatment and had their freedom restricted. This was established by a Danish Court of Appeal, last January.
The demonstrators have right to compensation of between 2,200 and 5,500 DKR (300-740 euros) and 4,000 euros for human rights’ abuses. The 479 applications for compensation are now processed and more may be eligible.
The police were found to have violated four sections of the European Convention on Human Rights. That is, Article 3 against abusive treatment and torture, and Articles 5, 10 and 11, which deal with the right to liberty, if a crime has not been committed, the right to find out what they are accused of, and freedom of association and the right to engage in peaceful assembly.
The Court of Appeal tightened the earlier judgment of a district court, which also ruled in favour of the protesters.
The police have decided not to appeal to a higher court.
“It is a big victory for us and a long campaign, since December 2009. The court could not ignore the pressure from society to punish the police”, commented Mattias Bernhardsson, a city councillor for Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI Sweden), and one of the protesters receiving compensation from the Danish state.
The mass arrests were carried out as demonstrations took place during a global climate summit, in 2009. World leaders, including US President Obama, attended the summit.
The Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna website described events at the summit:
“[A] Strong anti-capitalist mood prevailed [amongst] the more than 100,000-strong climate demonstration in Copenhagen on 12 December. Nearly 1,000 people, however, were contained by the police and forced to sit on the cold ground for three hours, including 25 members of RS (Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna, CWI Sweden). They intervened ‘preventive’, say the Danish police. ‘We were totally innocent,’ says Mattias Bernhardsson, a councillor for the RS in Haninge, who was one of those arrested.”
Mattias was interviewed by Swedish Radio and during the following days, RS-members were interviewed by other media outlets.
‘Hooligan pack’ legislation
The Danish police clearly planned the mass arrests. Prior to the climate conference, they were equipped with new tougher laws, the infamous, so-called ‘lømmelpakken’ (‘hooligan pack’). During the summit’s first days, Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna reported in its newspaper, Offensiv, that the police were now able to make a “preventive arrest of a person even though he has not done anything. He can then be held for up to twelve hours. If you get officially arrested, the police may hold a foreign person for 72 hours without a court order. All of Copenhagen has been made a check point zone.”
Offensiv further reported: “On 8 December, there was a major raid on a house in Ragnhild Gade, Norrebro, where many of the protesters live. Personal belongings were confiscated. Buses with demonstrators were stopped and detained for long periods.”
But it was during the mass demonstration on December 12 that the police arrested nearly one thousand people. This assault on the mass protest was at first described by the police and media as a ‘crackdown’ on ‘violent protesters’. Some people were alleged to have been arrested as a preventive measure, because they “planned” to use force.
There were several factors behind the police crackdown. There was clear intention to try to intimidate and confuse the demonstrators and the many people who sympathised with the climate protests. The climate change issue radicalised many people, both activists and ‘ordinary people’. Their demands were directed against the large corporations and governments, which are responsible for huge pollution and environmental degradation. If the protesters were branded as ‘violent’, it could undermine the climate movement.
The police also needed to justify their large operation during the summit and wanted to put into practice and test out the new tougher laws. Danish politicians and police chiefs were concerned that “nothing should happen” when world leaders were at the summit. The police acted in a similar manner during the EU summit in Gothenburg, in 2001, when 1,200 protesters were arrested.
In total, during the Copenhagen summit over 2,000 people were taken to custody, to a special ‘climate prison’, cages inside a warehouse. From the first day of this police action, a campaign against the violent police actions began. Activists gathered names of all detainees, the media was contacted, injuries were photographed and witness stories recorded. Members of RS stated in close contact with the detainees and had cars outside the detention center to aid detainees when they were eventually released.
The next day a much-publicized press conference was organised that directly raised the question of legal action against the police. We reported on socialisterna.org on 13 December:
"We will sue the Danish police! Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna, Friends of the Earth and Fältbiologerna (an environmental organisation) organised, on Sunday, a well-attended press conference concerning the Danish police’s abuse of a nearly 1,000 people during last Saturday’s 100,000 strong climate protest.
Tord Björk, from Friends of the Earth in Sweden, opened the press conference with harsh criticism of the Danish police and its laws, which were designed to intimidate protesters from joining the climate movement’s mass protests.
Field biologist president, Johanna Paulsson, agreed with the criticism of the police and explained that also members of her organisation were imprisoned. RS member, Karin Wallmark, gave evidence and showed how they had to sit imprisoned with their hands secured behind their backs for 6-7 hours, first about three hours on the cold street and then for several hours at floors in the so-called ‘climate prison’ or in buses [when there was no room left] on floors. Several were refused use of the toilet and had to urinate with their clothes on. A day later, others were still in pain, in the back, arms, shoulders and wrists. From the CWI contingent, 40 protesters from Sweden, Germany and Belgium, who all were there to express their views peacefully, were arrested.
‘We will sue the Danish police for sabotaging the 968 demonstrators’ right to demonstrate and to speak on the greatest global issue. What we have seen is an unacceptable application of an unacceptable legislation that must not be allowed to spread across Europe’, explained Arne Johansson, RS.”
Public opinion demanded police prosecuted
Police attempts to answer criticism of their operation was supported by some right-wing politicians. But public opinion in Denmark strongly demanded that the police should be prosecuted and sentenced for the violence. A lawyer, Knud Foldschack, who represented many of those arrested and subjected to violence, said after the judgment that the Danish police are now convicted of using torture and that it is time to throw the infamous ‘lømmelpakken’ legislation in the trash.
The judgment is a great achievement for the protest campaign and has had an influence on public opinion. The police abuse was too serious and well-documented for the state to easily acquit the police officers. For the Danish Establishment, it was best to retreat somewhat, so the state may be regarded as a ‘fair judge’.
Using the legal system, when possible, however, is no substitute for building fighting mass movements. Not least, the climate change issue has intensified since 2009. There have also been many violent attacks against protesters and Occupy movement activists around the world. Protest movements need to build mass support to take on the vested interests of the ruling classes and to oppose state repression. The developing anti-capitalist movement and workers’ struggles also need to adopt a socialist programme, to effectively challenge the ruling elite and big business, which are largely responsible for climate change and the other social and economic ills of capitalist society.