On A cold December morning in 2009 a dozen British climate activists set off toward the Bella Centre on the outskirts of Copenhagen. They planned to participate in the last day of protests during the COP15 climate conference, but they never made it.
As they cycled past a golf course, they were confronted by a number of police vans.
“The police asked us where we were going, but we chose not to answer,” says one of the protestors, Sarah (not her real name).“They then told us that they were going to detain us and that they didn’t have to have any reason. They said they had the power to pre-emptively detain anyone they wanted.”
Sarah describes the following 10 hours of detention as an ordeal. The police tied the protestors’ hands behind their backs using plastic cables and sat them in rows in the snow for an hour. They were then ferried to a detention centre that was created specifically for detaining protestors during the conference.
More hours of sitting in lines without food or drink ensued while about them the police employed restraint tactics and pepper spray to keep the protestors from singing and standing. She was eventually registered, but the makeshift detention cages were all full, so she and few others were taken to a nearby police station and kept in a cell.
They were released late in the evening and dropped off at a train station.
“I had no idea where I was, and felt exhausted and totally disorientated by the whole experience. I remember thinking that aside from a piece of paper with my photograph on it which was used to identify my belongings, I had absolutely no paperwork to prove that this experience had ever happened to me.”
Sarah is one of 1,915 protestors to be arrested during the climate conference, the majority of whom were preventatively detained. The largest single action took place on December 12, when the police arrested 905 protesters on Amagerbrogade. Of those arrested that day, 178 joined 72 other protestors arrested at other points during the week to collectively sue the police for unlawful arrest.
The protestors won in both the Copenhagen City Court in 2010 and, after the police appealed, the Eastern High Court in 2012. The courts found that all the arrests, bar a few, were unreasonable and violated several articles in the European Convention on human rights. The ruling covered several incidents of preventative arrest, including Sarah’s, and granted compensation of up to 5,500 kroner to all those involved.
The police justified the preventative arrests as necessary to maintain law and order and detain violent protestors. But following the 2012 ruling, Copenhagen Police commissioner Johan Reimann apologised. “We could have done it different or better. We will learn from this,” he told Information.
But they haven’t, and since the ruling the police have lost a number of other cases where they employed preventative arrests, resulting in millions of kroner in compensation claims.
Threat to democracy
The police had their right to preventatively detain people extended from six to 12 hours in a law that was passed in November 2009 – weeks before COP15. The law was widely criticised at the time, including by the current justice minister, Karen Hækkerup, when she sat in the opposition. Following the 2012 ruling, the current government agreed to meet with parties opposed to the law to see what changes could be made. They finally met this June, but little was achieved. Hækkerup argued that the police simply needed new written guidelines for when the law should be employed. Enhedslisten MP Pernille Skipper was not impressed.
“The police still have to use guesswork, and a letter explaining the judge’s ruling doesn’t make their guesses more qualified. I don’t think it’s very useful,” Skipper told Information.
Law firm Foldschack and Forchammer represented almost 200 of the protestors. They have since won a number of other cases against the police for illegal preventative arrests, ranging from the arrest of football fans in Aarhus to left-wing protestors in central Copenhagen. With two more cases coming up, assistant attorney Marc Jørgensen argues that the police will soon have to change their approach, though really it’s the law that needs changing.
“With so many cases going through the system, it’s clear that there is something wrong with the law rather than its application. If they lose these new cases, they will have to stop using the law,” Jørgensen argues, adding that the government’s refusal to change it is problematic.
“It’s not just that people can be detained without first having done something criminal. Normal citizens who haven’t broken the law shouldn’t be detained – it’s a basic rule. Demonstrations are important for democracy and peaceful protestors shouldn’t worry about being locked up. That’s very important to us. After COP15 people became afraid of going to rallies, and that’s really dangerous. We should expect to be safe and not have to fear the police if we behave peacefully and lawfully.”
Making dissent invisible
Jonas Christoffersen, the director of the Danish Institute for Human Rights, agrees that the law challenges both the Danish constititution and the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantee the freedom of assembly.
“I would prefer a stepladder model, forcing the police to consider whether or not they can defend keeping people in custody. Such a model would oblige the police to have ‘special reasons’ for maintaining a detention for more than three hours, and ‘exceptional reasons’ for more than six hours,” Christoffersen says, before adding that he was disappointed that the government chose not to critically review the law.
“There is a risk that we will continue to see preventive action with ensuing compensation, which brings up a cost-benefit issue. The police had to pay around 1.8 million kroner after COP15 and around one million this year for mass arrests before a football match between Brøndby and FC Copenhagen last year.”
Sarah was helped by free legal aid charity Rusk, which in March 2013 informed her that she had been awarded 3,300 kroner in compensation. Finally in June, after over a year of correspondence with the police, they informed her that the money was on its way. But the long wait has kept her connected to an experience that continued to haunt her long after her release.
“I certainly felt it as a kind of ‘trauma’, to face such indiscriminate, pre-meditated and well-organised police violence. To be confronted directly with the fact that if the state did not want our protest to take place, it would simply physically remove us from the situation and detain us until the protest time was over. To me, this is the essence of state repression – making dissent invisible whilst demonstrating its totalising control over peoples’ freedom of movement, expression, and association.”