LONDON — Climate activist Greta Thunberg was acquitted Friday 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 on the grounds that there were “significant deficiencies in the evidence” presented by the prosecutor.
Law said that the police could have taken less restrictive measures, didn’t properly define where protesters should move and the order to disperse that was given was “so unclear that it was unlawful,” and those who didn’t comply committed no offense.
The judge said that he would grant defense lawyer Raj Chada’s request for the government to pay his legal fees and Thunberg’s travel costs after they submit those bills.
“The conditions imposed on the protest were unclear, uncertain and unlawful,” defense lawyer Raj Chada said outside court. “The government should stop prosecuting peaceful protesters, and instead find ways to tackle the climate crisis.”
The Swedish environmentalist, who inspired a global youth movement demanding stronger efforts to fight climate change, was charged in Westminster Magistrates’ Court with violating the act that allows police to impose limits on public assemblies. She had faced a fine of up to 2,500 pounds ($3,190) if she had been convicted.
Thunberg, 21, was among more than two dozen protesters arrested on Oct. 17 after preventing access to a hotel during the Energy Intelligence Forum, attended by some of the industry’s top executives.
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 the courthouse Friday without speaking to journalists.
On Thursday when she left court, she said: “We must remember who the real enemy is. 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.
Law said the protest had been “peaceful, civilized and nonviolent.”
“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,” the judge said in 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 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.