Police officers who broke up a two-man protest under COVID restrictions have been accused of getting coronavirus legislation wrong.
Officers told two men who have spent months campaigning against the treatment of Uighur Muslims in China outside a VW dealership they could not carry on.
They said the protest was banned under COVID laws, while one of the men insists it constitutes a reasonable excuse to leave home because of the seriousness of the Uighur Muslims’ plight and does not meet the definition of a gathering.
Andrew, a businessman in his 50s who doesn’t want to give his second name, told Yahoo News UK he believes what he has been doing is allowed under regulations.
Watch: What you can and can't do during England's third national lockdown
“If you’re protesting about – there’s too many hamsters being sold in pet shops, that’s probably not a reasonable excuse, under the coronavirus regulations,” he said.
But he said his campaign about Uighur Muslims is “incontestably a reasonable excuse”.
The US has described the Uighurs' treatment as “genocide”, while China denies the accusations.
Andrew, of Golders Green, told Yahoo News UK that police arrived at about 5.30pm on 1 February as he and co-protester Daniel came to the end of their hour-long shift.
They have been campaigning outside the Alan Day VW dealership on the North Circular in Southgate, north London, several times a week for the past three months.
He said police told him protesting is illegal and they needed to leave, and that he was threatened with arrest.
Andrew argued they were allowed to be there and their activity was legal under coronavirus laws but said they were planning on leaving as they had finished their protest for the day, and police allowed them to go.
“They were getting up quite close, they were wearing masks and we were wearing masks but masks only prevent so much,” Andrew said.
“They were talking quite loudly and after three months of having been in no danger at these protests whatsoever I felt that we were under not insignificant danger from these policemen, because these policemen come into contact with all sorts of people as part of their job. I feel sorry for them – but they’re then putting us in extreme danger because of what they’re doing.
“What we’re doing is fully legal.”
A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police said: “Gathering for the purpose of a protest is not an exemption under the legislation.”
He said officers can use their power of arrest when dealing with COVID breaches, including where a person’s identity cannot be confirmed and a fine cannot be issued.
The spokesman added that “the reality of policing is that it cannot always be done at a two-metre distance”.
Andrew and Daniel have not been issued a fine and Andrew, who insisted he was not asked to provide his name and address, has complained to the force over the incident.
A human rights barrister said protests are not explicitly banned under legislation.
Adam Wagner, from Doughty Street Chambers, said of the incident: “I am very worried by the way protest has been treated during this lockdown – as illegal. It is neither explicitly permitted or banned under the regulations. Police have duty under Human Rights Act to protect free speech and should allow socially distanced outdoor protest.”
Yahoo News UK asked the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC) for clarification about the law on protests, who directed us to the Home Office.
Watch: Twitter suspends Chinese embassy over Uighur post
The Home Office told us to consult the NPCC guidance, which said: “Protests are not an exception in a Tier 4 area.”
It does not provide guidance on two-person protests.
A VW spokesman said: “Volkswagen and its joint ventures strictly oppose any form of forced labour in our operations anywhere in the world, including China.
“We have no evidence that forced labour is being used in our direct supply chain or at any of our production plants.
“At our plant in Urumqi, all employees have a direct labour contract with SAIC Volkswagen with equal pay for equal jobs. No organisation outside of SAIC Volkswagen has any role or influence in hiring decisions.”
Andrew insisted he protests on the pavement and at rush hour when “traffic is crawling past”, and added that the police did not mention “any dangerous behaviour by us”.
A newly published legal opinion said there is a “very credible case” the Chinese government is carrying out genocide against Uighur people, according to the BBC.
Andrew, an Orthodox Jew, says he was inspired by both his mother’s criticism that not enough was done to stop the holocaust, and his wife’s family, who managed to escape the Gestapo thanks to a policeman’s assistance as they tried to cross from France into Switzerland.
“I didn’t feel I could sit at home and do nothing,” he said.
This led to him previously protesting outside a Chinese embassy building in Hampstead, but his focus changed to Volkswagen after he saw an article about the car maker’s activities in Xinjiang.
“We thought that’s wrong and we feel it’s really important VW pull out of Xinjiang,” he said.
Watch: China takes aim again at BBC as dispute intensifies