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Rights group dismayed by Scott’s decision not to fund counsel for APEC protesters

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association is dismayed by Solicitor General Andy Scott’s decision not to fund legal counsel for the students opposed to APEC whose protest signs were removed, and those who were pepper sprayed and arrested by the RCMP on the UBC campus last fall.

“We now have serious doubts whether the RCMP Public Complaints Commission (PCC) hearings will uncover the whole truth,” said BCCLA President Andrew Irvine today. “Our counsel (provided by the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre) will be there for the full six weeks, and we’ll do what we can, but that may not be enough. We were counting on lawyers for the other complainants to share the burden of sifting through the mountains of evidence and cross-examining police and government witnesses.”

Originally the PCC had refused to approach the federal government for funding for complainants’ counsel. But after a court ruled that their reasons had no merit, the PCC reversed its position and asked for funding, but only for complainants who had direct confrontation with the RCMP at the protest sites, and so who could be subject to rigorous cross-examination by the RCMP’s lawyers.

In addition to the students’ claims of false arrest and excessive force, the BCCLA has alleged that the students’ right to freedom of expression was violated. What is even more disturbing to the rights group is the appearance that the motive in removing protest signs may have been purely political, without a basis in legitimate security needs.

“A democracy is in deep trouble when the police are used not to maintain law and order and protect citizens’ constitutional rights, but to further a political agenda,” said Irvine. “These hearings must get to the bottom of the allegation that the RCMP were directed by the Prime Minister’s Office to remove protest signs. Failure to fund legal representation for complainants who have made this allegation could result in the truth remaining hidden. That would be a tragedy for all of us.”

Irvine continued, “We say that if the Solicitor General was truly interested in the truth coming out, he should have looked past the narrow grounds cited by the PCC, and funded counsel anyway. Given our substantial role in the hearings, we applied for funding too. We haven’t even had the courtesy of a reply from either the PCC or the Solicitor General.”

The rights group believes that in making this funding decision, the federal government was in a clear conflict of interest. The government’s behavior in the matter is one of the key issues, yet it was asked to provide funding for lawyers whose task would be to uncover the truth about that behavior. Small wonder it leapt at the chance to deny funding.