A group of activists plead guilty to aggravated trespass for a protest at an EDF power plant, but now face a civil claim of up to 5m in damages - something they say is an attack on peaceful protests.

No Dash for Gas protestors at the West Burton site

The 21 protestors from the No Dash for Gas group, which protests against government plans to develop 20 gas-fired power stations in the UK, admitted the charges against them at Mansfield magistrates' court on Wednesday.

However, they now face a claim, seen by Channel 4 News, for damages of up to £5m from French company EDF. The claim seeks compensation for a range of elements including lost profits from the delay in commissioning the power station and staffing and security costs.

If they are successful in suing us for £5m it will send out a message that if you take direct action you will lose your home - Ewa Jasiewicz, No Dash for Gas

In October last year the protestors broke into the West Burton power plant, which was under construction, and scaled chimney stacks. Footage from the protest (see below) shows how the activists set ropes between the stacks so they could pass between them, and abseiled down inside the chimneys. The protest lasted for seven days.

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Ewa Jasiewicz, one of the protestors, speaking to Channel 4 News from the magistrates' court, said: "We think the civil case could act as a greater deterrent than criminal convictions.

EDF's civil claim is an attempt by a state-owned French company to undermine the British tradition of organised dissent - John Sauven, Greenpeace

"If they are successful in suing us for £5m it will send out a message that if you take direct action you will lose your home. They are playing a bigger game of trying to deter direct action and protest."

Greenpeace has also criticised the civil claim, saying the action is seeking to "undermine the British tradition of organised dissent".

Greenpeace executive director John Sauven said: "It's difficult to imagine how we at Greenpeace could have run our successful campaigns against illegal rainforest timber imports or pirate fishing if every time we took direct action we were landed with a multi-million pound bill.

"EDF's civil claim is an attempt by a state-owned French company to undermine the British tradition of organised dissent. The company would do well to re-think what they're doing before they have a McLibel on their hands."

It is important that those considering this kind of action understand that they may face consequences through civil action for the damage, cost and disruption they cause - EDF statement

'McLibel' refers to the longest civil case in English history, ten years, in which McDonalds sued two activists for libel over claims they made in leaflets.

The case is widely acknowledged to have been an embarrassment for McDonalds as judges ruled some of the pamphlet's claims were true and it turned public sentiment against the company.

However, EDF has defended the action the civil action it has taken against the group - saying the group had "put lives at risk".

A statement said: "EDF Energy supports the right to lawful protest and respects differing points of view. However, the consequences of this illegal activity put lives at risk, caused considerable disruption to the site during its construction, and considerable financial losses.

"It also delayed the completion of the new power station – part of a massive investment in the UK's energy supply which will provide enough electricity for 1.5m homes.

"It is important that those considering this kind of action understand that they may face consequences through civil action for the damage, cost and disruption they cause."

No Dash for Gas has also claimed that they faced lesser criminal charges than would have been expected, in order to prevent them from making their case in front of a jury.

One of the No Dash for Gas protestors inside a chimney stack (picture: No Dash for Gas)

Ms Jasiewicz said a police officer was overheard saying that the group would be prevented from having their "day in court".

"It means our arguments about why we take direct action, about climate change and ending fuel poverty, aren't heard by a jury", she said.

"It is much harder to convince a magistrate about the social and political reasons for your protest."

The action compares to previous high profile cases such as the protest at Ratcliffe-on-Sour, where a group were charged with the more serious crime of conspiracy to commit aggravated trespass, despite police arresting protestors before they had a chance to stage the action.

In 2008, protestors who staged action at the Kingsnorth power station in Kent walked free from crown court after a jury ruled in their favour. They had faced charges of criminal damage.

Nottinghamshire Police told Channel 4 News that the decision over which charges to bring was made by the CPS.

"There was no damage caused to West Burton power station during the occupation of the protesters," a spokesperson said. "The force, as with all criminal investigations, put details of a case to the Crown Prosecution Service.

"Based on these details the CPS made the final decision as to what charges were brought against each arrested person."

A CPS spokesperson said: "The decision to charge the defendants with aggravated trespass was taken because that was the appropriate charge on the evidence available and not for any other reason. The decision was taken in accordance with the Code for Crown Prosecutors."

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