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  • Cambridgeshire police tried to turn political activists into informers

    Force defends use of covert tactics against campaigners

    Police and anti-fascist protesters clash in Cambridge before a speech at the university by the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen in 2013. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty
    A young anti-racism protester abandoned her campaigning work because she felt intimidated by a covert police officer who tried to persuade her to spy on her political colleagues, she has said.

    The 23-year-old said the officer, working for a secretive police unit, threatened to prosecute her if she told anyone about the attempt to enlist her as an informer.

    The woman, who is a single mother, said the threat had left her feeling “vulnerable and intimidated”, worried that a prosecution would jeopardise her young son, her university place and her chances of working in the future. “If I was charged, I could lose everything,” she said.

    The Guardian in November published a secretly recorded video revealing how police had tried to recruit an environmental protester, also in his twenties, to spy on politically active Cambridge students.

    Now, three more campaigners have come forward. They have described how police from the covert unit tried to convince them to become informants, and to spy on political groups, such as environmentalists and anti-fascists, in return for cash.

    The allegations come two weeks after Theresa May, the home secretary, ordered a public inquiry into the undercover infiltration of political groups after revelations that the police had spied on the family of Stephen Lawrence.

    Another of the campaigners said an officer had appeared to follow him and his young daughter to a supermarket where, he said, the officer thrust an envelope containing cash into his hand to induce him to secretly pass on information about environmentalists in Cambridge.

    He said he had angrily rejected the envelope, warning that he would get a legal order to stop the police pursuing him, as the officer had previously made two unannounced visits to his home to try to turn him into an informant.

    A third campaigner said a police officer had also offered him cash for details about the political activities of leftwing students in Cambridge. He said the same police officer was recorded in the secret video published in November.

    All four attempts were made since late 2010 by Cambridgeshire police officers. The force, which accepts that it tried to recruit the four, refused to name or give any details about the unit, but denied its officers would carry out some of the behaviour alleged by the activists.

    A spokesperson said : “Officers use covert tactics to gather intelligence, in accordance with the law, to assist in the prevention and detection of criminal activity.”

    They added: “In the application of these tactics we wouldn’t engage in behaviour which has been described by the individuals.”

    The Cambridge MP, Julian Huppert, said he was “alarmed” by the allegations, and demanded an explanation from the Cambridgeshire chief constable, Simon Parr, of “what has happened here, particularly if people are feeling threatened by the police”.

    He added: “The police clearly have a role to keep us safe and to try and understand what is happening. But the sort of methods that are described here seem to me to be simply inappropriate. I do not believe that the sort of steps that are being taken here are proportionate to the actual risks there are.”

    The allegations may shed light on how far police may be prepared to go in their efforts to recruit informers, said to number in the hundreds across the country, from inside what activists say are legitimate protest campaigns.

    None of the four activists was willing to be named, as they said they feared repercussions from the police.

    The single mother has described how her first political action was to join the Cambridge branch of Unite Against Fascism (UAF) in late 2012. She attended two meetings held to mount a counter-demonstration to a march that was being organised by the far-right English Defence League.

    She volunteered to help the group’s Facebook page and other social media. Soon after, an officer rang her on her mobile to ask her to come to a local police station as he wanted her opinion on antisocial behaviour in her neighbourhood.

    But it was a ruse, she said: at station the officer instead asked her if she would become an informant and tell “everything” she knew about UAF in return for expenses, including trawling Facebook for information about the group.

    The officer, whose name is not being disclosed by the Guardian and has been given the pseudonym Peter Smith, saidhe worked for a covert unit whose activities were not known to the rest of the station.

    She said that twice during the meeting Smith had warned her that she could be prosecuted if she told anyone, including her mother, about the attempt to recruit her. “He said, if you tell anybody about it at all, we can charge you for getting in our way or compromising our investigation,” she added.

    “I felt at the time a bit of blind panic. It took me off my guard. It knocked me for six. You kind of feel like your back is against the wall, and you did not even know that you were going to be there, or why.”

    She went home worried “about what I had got myself into here. I felt completely exposed. The problem was that I could not tell anybody”.

    She had felt it would be “immoral” not to tell the UAF; but if she did, that could compromise other people in the group.

    She said she had also been worried that police would find out if she told anyone, as she suspected that someone at the group’s meetings had passed on her contact details to the police in the first place.

    Faced with the quandary, and unable to “look the group in the eye”, she withdrew from UAF. She had felt “pressured” into another meeting with Smith, but after further phone calls from him she had rejected his offer.

    She and two others are speaking out after the publication of the secret video, which was recorded by the young protester using a concealed camera. It appeared to show Smith asking the protester to spy on Cambridge students, Unite Against Fascism, UK Uncut and environmentalists.

    One of the campaigners who has now come forward said he, too, had been lured to a police station under a pretext by Smith in late 2012.

    The campaigner, a student at Cambridge University, had called the police to report two suspicious men on his street who looked as if they were looking for houses to burgle.

    A few days later, he said, he had received a call from Smith inviting him to the station to discuss the suspicious men in more detail.

    But when he went to the meeting, Smith showed little interest in burglary, and instead asked if he would become an informant, supplying him with information about protests being organised by leftwing students in Cambridge.

    Smith allegedly said the campaigner would be paid for his work, but he refused, and heard nothing more.

    In the other case, the environmental and social justice campaigner said a police officer had twice come to his house without an appointment and suggested that one of the campaigns he wanted information about was an environmental group, Cambridge Action Network.

    He said that even though he had rejected the attempt after a third encounter, the police officer had seemed to follow him and his young daughter a month later to a supermarket, and had pushed an envelope of cash notes into his hand one afternoon in 2011.

    “It seemed very random that he should cross our paths there and then, at that moment,” the campaigner said. “Just as we were getting on our bikes, he kind of swooped around the corner on his bicycle and tried to push the money into my hand.”

    Rob Evans and Matthew Taylor
    The Guardian, Monday 17 March 2014 16.53 GMT

    Find this story at 17 March 2014

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