LONDON — Climate activist Greta Thunberg was acquitted Friday of a charge of refusing to follow a police order to leave a protest blocking the entrance to a major oil and gas industry conference in London last year.
The courtroom gallery erupted with applause as Judge John Law told Thunberg and her four co-defendants to stand and told them they were cleared of the criminal charge of breaching the Public Order Act. The judge cited “significant deficiencies in the evidence” presented by the prosecutor.
Law said the police could have applied less restrictive measures and didn’t properly define where protesters should move, while their order to disperse was “so unclear that it was unlawful.” Individuals who did not comply therefore committed no offense, according to the judge..
Law also granted defense lawyer Raj Chada’s request for the government to pay legal fees and Thunberg’s travel costs once the bills are submitted. She had faced a fine of up to 2,500 pounds ($3,190) if convicted in Westminster Magistrates’ Court of violating the act that allows police to impose limits on public assemblies.
“The conditions imposed on the protest were unclear, uncertain and unlawful,” Chada said outside court. “The government should stop prosecuting peaceful protesters, and instead find ways to tackle the climate crisis.”
The Oct. 17 protest was one of many in the U.K. against fossil fuel producers that have led to criminal charges. Some demonstrations have disrupted sporting events, caused massive traffic jams or created shocking spectacles to draw attention to the climate crisis.
But the judge noted that the demonstration attended by Thunberg, 21, was “peaceful, civilized and nonviolent.”
The Swedish environmentalist, who inspired a global youth movement demanding stronger efforts to fight climate change, was among more than two dozen protesters arrested for preventing access to a hotel during the Energy Intelligence Forum, attended by some of the industry’s top executives.
“It is quite striking to me that there were no witness statements taken from anyone in the hotel, approximately 1,000 people, or from anyone trying to get in,” Law said while reading a ruling that had Thunberg and her co-defendants laughing at times. “There was no evidence of any vehicles being impeded, no evidence of any interference with emergency services or any risk to life.”
Thunberg and other climate protesters have accused fossil fuel companies of deliberately slowing the global energy transition to renewables in order to make more profit. They also oppose the U.K. government’s recent approval of drilling for oil in the North Sea, off the coast of Scotland.
Thunberg left court Friday without speaking to journalists, walking past more than a dozen cameras and then sprinting down the sidewalk with her friends.
“We must remember who the real enemy is,” she said in a short statement after the first day of trial Thursday. “What are we defending? Who are our laws meant to protect?”
Metropolitan Police Superintendent Matthew Cox said that he had worked with protesters for about five hours before he issued an order for demonstrators to move to an adjacent street, because he was concerned about the safety of those in the hotel.
“It seemed like a very deliberate attempt … to prevent access to the hotel for most delegates and the guests,” Cox testified. “People were really restricted from having access to the hotel.”
Cox said protesters lit colorful flares and drummers created a deafening din outside the hotel as some demonstrators sat on the ground and others rappelled from the roof of the hotel. When officers began arresting people, other protesters quickly took their places, leading to a “perpetual cycle” that found police running out of officers to make arrests.
Thunberg was outside the front entrance of the hotel when she was given a final warning that she would be arrested if she didn’t comply, prosecutor Luke Staton said. She said she intended to stay where she was.
Thunberg rose to prominence after staging weekly protests outside the Swedish Parliament starting in 2018.
Last summer, she was fined by a Swedish court for disobeying police and blocking traffic during an environmental protest at an oil facility. She had already been fined for the same offense previously in Sweden.