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Britain's new protest laws 'unconstitutional', rights group tells London court

By Sam Tobin

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain unlawfully gave police wider powers to impose conditions on peaceful protests which cause "more than minor" disruption to the public, lawyers for a civil rights organisation told a London court on Wednesday.

Human rights group Liberty is taking on the government over changes to public order laws made last year, which it says gave the police almost unlimited powers to shut down protests.

The case at London's High Court comes amid a wider crackdown on protest movements in Britain and across Europe, as environmental activists have used direct action protests to demand urgent government action against climate change.

Liberty's legal action focuses on the Public Order Act, under which the police can impose conditions on a protest if it could cause "serious disruption to the life of the community".

The law was amended by then interior minister Suella Braverman last year, so police could impose conditions in cases where a protest could cause "more than minor" disruption.

Liberty says the decision by Braverman - an outspoken critic of several protest movements and human rights laws - was unlawful and undemocratic.

Its lawyer Jude Bunting said the changes were "constitutionally unprecedented" because they had already been rejected by Britain's parliament.

He added in court filings that the new powers "have led to the criminalisation of protest activity which would not otherwise have been capable of criminalisation," citing the arrest of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg last year.

Thunberg was acquitted earlier this month.

Government lawyers, however, said ministers were given express powers to amend the law on what amounted to serious disruption.

James Eadie argued in court filings that the new laws "do not expand the scope of criminal offences" but simply change when the police can impose conditions on protests.

The hearing continues on Thursday with the court's decision expected at a later date.

(Reporting by Sam Tobin; Editing by Daniel Wallis)