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Following release of BC activist Rita Wong, Amnesty International calls on governments across Canada to avoid criminalization of protest

    Courtesy of PEN Canada
    September 05, 2019

    Following poet and activist Rita Wong’s release from prison on September 3, 2019, Amnesty International reiterates its call on the BC government and all governments across the country to take deliberate action to avoid unjustified criminalization of protest.

    In particular, the organization again expressed concern about the use of criminal contempt prosecutions against individuals accused with defying the court injunction against protests connected with the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.  

    “There is no denying that Rita Wong, and other protesters who have defied the Trans Mountain protest injunction are acting out of conscience and are deeply concerned about the urgent global climate crisis, environmental degradation, disregard for the rights of Indigenous peoples and other related injustices,” said Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada. “Those are imperatives that go to the very heart of why safeguarding rights associated with peaceful protest is so crucial. Protecting -- not criminalizing -- that right is a responsibility that all governments must take exceptionally seriously.”

    On Aug. 16, BC Supreme Court Justice Kenneth Affleck sentenced Rita Wong to 28 days in prison for defying a court injunction against protests linked to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. She served two-thirds of her sentence before her statutory release on Sept. 3. Rita Wong describes the protest, which took place at the Westridge Marine Terminal on Aug. 24, 2018, as involving about 30 minutes of song, prayer and seated ceremony.

    There have reportedly been over 200 arrests related to the injunction since a change last year from primarily relying on civil contempt proceedings to enforce the injunction and instead regularly pursuing criminal contempt prosecutions. Penalties in other cases have included hours of community service, fines of as much as $4,000 and prison sentences of up to fourteen days. The 28-day sentences received by Rita Wong and, in March of this year, lawyer David Gooderham, are the most severe punishments to date. Amnesty International is concerned about the apparent disproportionate nature of those sentences, particularly given that there were no acts of violence, threats of harm or any damage to property involved.

    In her statement to the court before the sentencing decision, Rita Wong stressed that “by breaching the injunction, [she] had no intention of reducing respect for our courts.” She noted that she did “respect the court’s concern for the rule of law,” and did “appreciate that obeying court orders is part of the rule of law.” She asked the court, however, to consider that “there are more aspects of the rule of law” before imposing a sentence and highlighted a range of concerns related to the environment, the rights of Indigenous peoples and human rights. 

    The right to peaceful protest is an internationally recognized and protected human right, enshrined in numerous international human rights treaties binding on Canada. All governments and all authorities in Canada are obliged to uphold this essential right, which can and should only be restricted when absolutely necessary. Enforcement of any such restrictions should avoid criminalization except where the actions of protesters have endangered lives or property.

    “There is every reason to expect ongoing peaceful protests -- at times in defiance of court injunctions -- against the Trans Mountain expansion and other resource development projects that pose threats to the environment or violate the rights of Indigenous peoples,” said Neve. “It is incumbent upon all governments to set clear guidelines and direction for law enforcement and prosecutors that recognize their obligation to respect and protect such protests and refrain from excessive and undue use of criminal law penalties to punish and deter protesters.”

    Background

    Amnesty International has issued numerous reports documenting a deeply worrying worldwide trend of attacks and shrinking space for those who speak up to defend human rights, including the right to a healthy environment. According to Amnesty's research, in country after country, defenders of land, Indigenous territory and the environment face stigmatization and criminalization in response to legitimate, peaceful protest against resource extraction projects and their impact. 

    Amnesty International has also frequently pointed to the over-reaction of governments in Canada to land rights protests and protests perceived to threaten favoured resource development projects. Court rulings, including in such cases as Trans Mountain, Clyde River and Northern Gateway, have made it abundantly clear that government approvals of such projects often fail utterly to respect the rights of Indigenous peoples.

    Noting that major resource development projects such as pipeline construction and expansion often have high political stakes, Amnesty International has underscored the need for even greater vigilance in such cases in ensuring that the right to protest is not sacrificed.

    Media Contact: Lucy Scholey, Media Relations, Amnesty International Canada (English branch), 613-744-7667 ext. 236 lscholey@amnesty.ca