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Civil liberties concerns raised after Vancouver protest arrests

Civil liberties advocates are raising questions after five people were arrested in Vancouver on the weekend at a Quebec solidarity protest -- four of them signing undertakings that banish them from the entire downtown Vancouver area until their court date on Aug. 8.

With arrest tolls now in the thousands in Quebec's protests against tuition hikes and anti-protest laws, some are also asking if Vancouver's arrests -- on charges of mischief and obstructing police, after protesters refused orders to leave Burrard Street -- are linked to the recent return of a Vancouver Police Department (VPD) crowd control sergeant from a tactical training in Quebec on handling student protests.

VPD confirmed that Staff Sgt. Ken Athans attended the Montreal police training.

"Staff Sgt. Athans... went to Montreal to observe what tactics and strategies the Montreal Police are using during their protests," Cst. Lindsey Houghton, VPD's media relations officer, told the Tyee. "Training such as this is conducted on a regular basis by members of the Department and involves officers from all different sections visiting other police agencies to learn from them."

An arrestee from Friday's "casserole" protest -- named for the clanging metal pots and pans which have marked Quebec rallies -- said the arrests were disproportionate to her group's roadway march.

"All I was doing was being at a protest, using my right to freedom of assembly and free speech," said law student Anushka Nagji, one of the arrestees. "Yes, we took the streets, but the police (usually) surround us, block traffic and stuff like that.

"There are so many ways the police could have handled what was going on without arresting us. It's terrifying, knowing that I was kept in jail for hours and hours... for what? Attending a march? Especially a march expressing issues with the criminalization of dissent and political persecution."

Houghton said police saw four masked individuals in the demonstration, which the VPD labeled a "Black Bloc" -- a protest tactic generally involving black clothes and concealed identity. But Nagji said she was arrested first, followed by a friend, neither of whom wore masks.

"With the ridiculousness of the charges, they shouldn't be approved at all," Nagji said. "The blanket prohibition in downtown Vancouver feels ridiculous to me."

This morning, Nagji successfully appealed the condition. The Tyee accompanied her when she requested a hearing at a community court Crown office. The reaction from a manager there was astonishment.

"Jesus Christ!" he said, examining her undertaking. "That's the entire West End."

David Eby, president of the BC Civil Liberties Association, said the conditions -– and Nagji's report that police left her, handcuffed, in a "pitch-black" paddy wagon in a VPD garage for one hour –- raises "systemic" concerns about the "criminalization of dissent."

"The conditions must be proportionate to the arresting offence, and the arresting offence needs to be something there's a reasonable prospect of conviction on and probable grounds the offence has actually been committed," Eby said. "I think most people can see the difference between a civilly disobedient, peaceful protestor and a violent, repeat offender criminal. Treating the two the same is akin to criminalizing dissent.

"It results in, unfortunately, the marginalization of protest, and the only people who can participate in protests are those who are willing to risk criminal records and draconian conditions until they can get them overturned... That's the real risk. I don't think you should have to pay that cost to enter a protest."

Houghton insisted police were merely taking precautions.

"Approximately four Black Bloc-type activists, carrying their signature black flags, were identified within this small group of 16," he said. "These few were the most disruptive and seemed bent on hijacking the protest.

"Prior to the arrests, the protesters were repeatedly offered police facilitation for a safe march down Burrard Street. It seemed obvious to officers that the protesters did not want to comply and wished to be arrested."

Demonstrators' conditions state: "I undertake to abstain from going to Burrard Inlet to the North, False Creek on the South, Cambie St to the East, English Bay to the West in the City of Vancouver." A fifth arrestee refused to sign and was released without charges after spending the night in jail.

David P. Ball is a freelance reporter based in Vancouver.

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