Three years after being arrested by Montreal police service (SPVM) at the March 15, 2012 anti-police brutality demonstration, more than 80 people charged under the controversial bylaw P-6 learned this week that they're no longer going to trial. The prosecutor for Montreal confirmed that the charges were removed just days before the trial was finally set to start.
Gonzalo Nunez, a public relations officer with the City of Montreal, told VICE that "after reviewing the evidence, the prosecutor decided not to proceed with the case." According to Nunez, the city's prosecutor concluded it would not be possible to "discharge the burden of proof" in time for the trial that was set to begin on January 29, 2015.
Municipal bylaw P-6 was amended in May 2012, amid the massive social movement resulting from the so-called Maple Spring student strike, and rendered illegal any protest route that hasn't been approved by police. It also prohibited people from wearing masks in demonstrations, anticipating changes to the Criminal Code passed at the federal level to ban masked protest. The bylaw also established a $500 fine for anyone present or taking part at any such illegal gathering—a 500 percent increase from the prior fine.
Over the past three years, Montreal police have arrested and fined more than 3,500 protesters under P-6. Between March 5 and May 1, 2013 alone, the SPVM ticketed over 1,200 people and collectively charged them with close to $800,000 in fines.
On March 15, 2013, a VICE journalist was arrested as she was covering the annual COBP protest against police brutality. (Full disclosure: I was arrested, detained and fined on May 1, 2013 and "held for investigation" on May 1, 2014.)
A decade ago, the UN Human Rights Committe was already voicing criticism against the SPVM's indiscriminate mass arrests technique, known as "kettling." Blind to criticism, Montreal police refined their urban riot control methods in partnership with the Canadian Forces after the killing of unarmed teen Fredy Villanueva sparked riots in Montreal's north end in 2008.
Since the 2012 student strike, mass arrests have become business as usual. Over the years, the SPVM has become expert at crowd control, as police chief Marc Parent boasted in a 2013 interview. "Police forces from around the world come now to learn about our techniques for crowd control," Parent told the Globe and Mail.
It might be simple enough for riot police to arrest people by the hundreds just to fine them, but it's a real problem for the municipal court to process all these cases with due diligence.
"They're trying stuff out," activist Julien Villeneuve told VICE. "They don't know how to deal with this," said the philosophy teacher, also known as Anarchopanda, who became a mascot of the 2012 student protests and who was since arrested five times under P-6: on March 22, April 5, and May 1, 2013, and on March 15 and May 1, 2014.
It seems that a lot of the mass-arrest cases simply don't hold up in court, and about 20 percent of them have now been dropped. Last year, the city decided to drop the charges against about 650 defendants, mass arrested under P-6 in April and May of 2012. In October, a municipal court judge forced the city to drop its case against another group of 27 protesters arrested on April 21, 2012.
In a 38-page ruling, justice Gilles R. Pelletier concluded that the city failed to respect the defendants' constitutional right to be tried within reasonable delay and pointed out several gaps in the prosecution, which he deemed were just short of a "denial of justice." The judge also called the botched judicial process a "massive haemorrhage of resources and funds."
A few days prior to the ruling, activists Julien Villeneuve and Jaggi Singh—who have both filed constitutional challenges to the bylaw—obtained documents which revealed that the city of Montreal contracted a private lawyer to defend the regulation's constitutionality, which raised some eyebrows given the context of austerity in the province.
Villeneuve also instigated one of several class-action lawsuits against the city, where over 1,500 protesters claim $21-million in damage for having their rights violated and being mistreated by police during mass-arrests.
He feels this is a "now or never moment" for people to become aware that this situation makes no sense, either politically or economically.
City councillor and chair of the City of Montreal's Committee for Public Safety Anie Samson declined VICE' request to comment to case. In a text message, her press secretary stated that the "decision stems from the municipal court and from independent prosecutors."
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