MPs raise questions in UK Parliament over arrest of Tibet protestors

[27 October 2015] The arrest of the three peaceful protestors during the Chinese President’s State Visit last week was raised in parliament yesterday via an Urgent Question submitted by Fabian Hamilton MP. The Minister responsible for policing, Mike Penning, refused to comment on the matter citing that it was “an ongoing police investigation”, but then came under increasing pressure as MPs lined up to criticise the decision to arrest the protestors.

Tibet Society, as Secretariat for the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tibet, worked with Fabian Hamilton MP to raise the Urgent Question and provided a synopsis of the protests and arrests to MPs.

Statement | Watch online | Quotes from MPs | Background

Tibet Society statement
The arrests of three peaceful protestors during the Chinese President’s State Visit to the UK are a very serious breach of the rights of British citizens to legitimately protest. The actions of the police raise questions as to where the orders for the arrests and home raids emanated. The circumstances leading to the arrests must be investigated and any collusion with Chinese security made public. The UK police must not be allowed to become a puppet of the Chinese State.

Watch the parliament debate via (26 mins)


Arrest of Tibet protestors raised in Parliament

Fabian Hamilton (Leeds North East) (Lab) raised the issue of the arrest of Tibet protestors during the Chinese President’s State Visit as an Urgent Question following parliamentary regular business on 26 October 2015. The Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice, Mike Penning, responded on behalf of the government. The issue, including subsequent comments and questions by MPs, was discussed for almost 30 minutes before the Speaker brought the matter to a close.

Mr Hamilton’s Urgent Question: “To ask the Minister to make a statement on the arrests of three peaceful protesters during President Xi Jinping’s visit to London last week.”

The Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice, Mike Penning responded saying, “It would be inappropriate for me to comment on specific individual cases.” The Minister added, “The right to protest peacefully is guaranteed under UK law, but protesters’ rights need to be balanced with the right of others to go about their business without fear of intimidation or serious disruption to the community. Rights to peaceful protest do not extend to violent, threatening behaviour, and the police have the powers to deal with such acts. The Metropolitan police issued a statement on this issue last week; they reject any suggestion that they acted inappropriately.”

Mr Hamilton then provided some details on the arrests and individuals arrests, noting Sonam Choden was “arrested for attempting to display a Tibetan flag” and Shao Jiang for “trying to display two A4-sized placards protesting against China’s human rights abuses”. He then asked the Minister if he would “comment on why their homes were searched at night while they were in custody?”

Mr Penning refused to answer, saying it was “not a matter for the Police Minister to comment on”.

MPs from all sides of the House then lined up to support the protestors and to question the Minister further. To these questions Mr Penning continued to reply that he could not comment on an ongoing investigation. During which time he appeared to be getting redder and redder in the face.

A selection of quotes follows:
Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): “In a free society, we defend the right to dissent and to protest.” adding that Mr Hamilton “is absolutely right to raise these concerns on the Floor of the House of Commons.”

Dr Tania Mathias (Twickenham) (Con): “Does he share my shame at the purported harassment of a Tiananmen Square survivor, Dr Shao Jiang?”

Anne McLaughlin (Glasgow North East) (SNP): Asked the Minister if he could “think of any reason, hypothetically speaking, why somebody waving their country’s flag should lead to them being arrested, put behind bars and having their mobile phone and PC taken from them?”

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): “It is unfortunate that he appears to be an apologist for [the arrests], as it seems to many people that what took place, as far as the police were concerned, could be described as British police action with Chinese characteristics.”

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con) tried a different tact, asking, “Will the Minister tell me how freedom of expression was equitably allowed by police who corralled peaceful Tibetan demonstrators at the back of the Mall with a line of police officers in front of them while pro-Chinese demonstrators, wearing T-shirts issued by the Chinese embassy, were allowed prime position at the front?”

Matthew Pennycook (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab) & Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab) both raised concerns on behalf of their constituents, Sonam Choden and Dr Shao Jiang respectively. Ms Thornberry said the decision to arrest her constituent was “disgraceful”.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab) said she was “embarrassed… a peaceful demonstration was treated in such a way.”

Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD) noted that when “the execution of these operational matters is done in such a way as to risk a chilling effect on freedom of speech, that becomes a matter for this House.”

Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab) called on the Minister to “properly investigate” the circumstances leading to the arrests.

Further comments were made by Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con), Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab), Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab), Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op), Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op), and Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab)..

Click here to read the full text of debate via Hansard

Background on protests and arrests

On 21 October, two Tibetans and a Chinese human rights defender were arrested for peacefully protesting during the Chinese President’s State Visit to the UK. Whilst in custody, their homes were raided by the police and computer equipment confiscated.

The three individuals had done nothing more than engage in their legitimate right to peaceful protest, which is a basic right upheld in British law.

It is clear from responses to the arrests that many members of the public are also deeply concerned about the government appearing to bend over backwards to provide a platform for the leader of the Chinese Communist Party at the cost of the public’s rights and privacy.

The three, Dr Shao Jiang (above), Sonam Choden (right) and Jamphel Lhamo (below), were arrested in two separate incidents. They were initially arrested to ‘prevent a breach of the peace’ under Section 5 of the Public Order Act. Later, when at the Bishopsgate Police Station, all three were arrested on ‘suspicion of conspiracy to commit threatening behaviour’.

The police used undue force when arresting Dr Shao Jiang who, whilst standing on his own in the road with two A4 sized placards calling for human rights for the people of China, was tackled to the ground by more than five police officers. Footage of his arrest was very clearly filmed and has been shown on the BBC, Channel 4 and other media outlets.

A little later, Sonam Choden and Jamphel Lhamo, were arrested for attempting to wave a Tibetan flag at the passing cavalcade of cars.

Mr Bill Nash, from BSB solicitors who represents the two Tibetan women, said, “In 40 years of legal experience I have never heard of police arresting peaceful protesters for conspiring to contravene Section 5 of the Public Order Act, which concerns harassment or threatening behaviour.”

Two days earlier, during the procession on The Mall to welcome Xi Jinping, many human rights protesters were completely swamped by thousands of Chinese students who surrounded, harassed and intimidated anyone who raised a placard or Tibetan flag. The police stood by and did nothing to protect the protesters from such threatening behaviour.

This was evident from a letter published in The Independent from Carole Beavis from Derbyshire. Carole, who had come to London to support groups campaigning for Tibet and human rights in China, spoke of her shock at, “the scale and level of organisation of the Chinese “welcome” that accompanied the President’s every move”.

When she took her Tibetan flag outside of the cordon she was, “subjected to aggressive bullying by Chinese men carrying huge flags which they used to cover and hide ours. We then had the attention of the Chinese dragon dancers, whilst the drummers and cymbal-bashers crashed next to our ears in an effort to intimidate us and drown out our legitimate voices.”

She then attempted to film the noisemakers but “was singled out by three official-looking Chinese men, who effectively herded me away from the event and lowered my arm holding the camera. I stood next to a policeman and told him I felt threatened, and they immediately backed off but stood a short distance away taking photos of the demonstrators, including me.”

This eyewitness account about the lack of response to protect legitimate peaceful protesters from orchestrated intimidation only adds to the concerns over the validity of the arrests of Dr Shao Jiang, Sonam Choden and Jamphel Lhamo, and raises serious questions over the even-handedness of the police approach.

Dr Shao Jiang, Sonam Choden and Jamphel Lhamo have been arrested under Section 5 of the Public Order Act. There is no inference of any potential violent act being prevented. Had this been the case they would have been arrested under Section 4 of the Public Order Act (unlawful violence).

To raid people’s homes, seize their computers and other electronic equipment for alleged breach of the peace, is unwarranted and borders on a violation of privacy. To send eight police officers to one home, five to another and use keys taken from one of those arrested to enter his home is disproportionate. Moreover, it is a very questionable use of police time and resources.

Answers need to be given to questions posed by Dr Shao Jiang and his wife Johanna Zhang when they say, “We would like to know more about the decision-making process that led to both the arrest and the seizure of our computers. We would also like to know when our computers will be returned.”

Further reading:
Tibet Society report (23 Oct)
Two Tibetans arrested during Xi Jinping UK visit; homes raided
BBC (23 Oct): Met Police defends ‘heavy-handed’ arrest of Chinese protesters
Independent (22 Oct): UK accused of doing China’s bidding…
Independent (22 Oct): I protested against China during its state visit to London…
Guardian (23 Oct): Xi Jinping protesters arrested and homes searched…
Daily Mail: (24 Oct) It’s like being back in China says Tiananmen survivor…