Students 'persecuted for protest', says MP

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An MP is calling for an end to what he sees as heavy handed crackdowns on student protests after a wave of university occupations.

Students claimed police were "hitting people"

Protests and sit-ins at nine universities last week led to a string of arrests and suspensions of students.

Police faced claims of violence at a London-based protest and five students were suspended in Sussex over a sit-in.

John McDonnell MP said students were being "persecuted", but police said they were preventing a breach of peace.

Last week, there were two days of protest over the closure of a student union, the University of London Union (ULU) in central London.

ULU is a symbolic centre of student activism in the UK and the protests led to 41 arrests and allegations of violence on both sides by the end of the week.

The University of London went on to take an injunction out over the weekend against "violent and intimidating" demonstrations on its campuses.

But Mr McDonnell, who has tabled an early day motion in the Commons, said: "I am deeply anxious about the whole range of protests that are taking place because they are all peaceful, they are all students seeking to make their voices heard.

"But they're being met with real intimidation and suspending students for an occupation is not acceptable."

He added: "It's outrageous that students exercising their traditional democratic right to protest have been persecuted in this way."

'Hitting people'

He said that judging by the television footage, there appeared to have been "real violence" at last week's London University occupation. This was an "over-reaction", he said.

He added: "Universities should recognise that students have a right to protest as long as it is peaceful. We should be encouraging people to speak out and exercise their democratic right and to be involved in society."

Michael Segalov, one of the students suspended indefinitely from Sussex University over the protests, said: "This is an attempt to de-legitimise protests on campus and dissent on universities.

"It is scaremongering so that students are afraid to have their voices heard."

Chief operating officer and secretary of the University of London, Chris Cobb, said the injunction was "a regrettable but necessary step" in order to prevent "the type of violent and intimidating behaviour that we have seen by protesters at Senate House recently".

'Persistent disruption'

The injunction bans students from protesting on campus until June next year. Peaceful demonstrations would not be stopped, however.

ULU president Michael Chessum said: "The university has taken this draconian measure because it has lost the arguments on the issues."

Earlier that week, students at the University of Sussex mounted a protest, including an occupation of some university buildings and five students were suspended and excluded from the university.

Sussex University said it suspended the students because of activities including an alleged assault of a member of staff when the occupation started, intimidation of people working in the building, theft and damage to university property. These are denied by the students.

Sussex registrar John Duffy said: "We fully support students' rights to protest lawfully. There have been demonstrations on a range of issues which have passed off peacefully.

"However, the university has been very clear that we will not tolerate any violence, intimidation or serious disruption. Unfortunately we have seen all three of these kinds of behaviour once more take place in connection with the recent occupation and subsequent events.

"This has been a persistent pattern: there have been three disruptive occupations on campus since February 2013.

'Draconian'

"This week we sought and were given a court order that made it clear the occupiers had no right to be there. The occupiers did not attend court to defend their actions.

"But in the circumstances of this persistent disruption we feel we need to go further to ensure there is no repeat of the appalling behaviour which has characterised these events."

Protests have been taking place at other universities including Birmingham, Goldsmiths, Exeter, Edinburgh, Warwick, Sheffield and Ulster over the past seven days.

The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts said in a statement: "The past week has seen an unprecedented level of police violence on campus, with draconian injunctions from the University of London and bail conditions banning students from congregating in public in groups of more than four.

"At Sussex, five students have been suspended for protesting, in Birmingham students have faced persecution and court injunctions. Across the country, we are being attacked, but we will not be intimidated."

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