A leading Birmingham pub bombings campaigner cleared of taking part in a lockdown-breaking gathering has accused the police of “re-traumatising” the families of the blasts’ victims.
Julie Hambleton cried and embraced her three co-defendants in the dock, all four of whom had stood trial accused of taking part in a gathering outside West Midlands Police headquarters on November 21 last year.
The event was the 46th anniversary of two devastating IRA bomb blasts in the city, which claimed the lives of 21 people – including Miss Hambleton’s older sister Maxine.
As leader of the Justice 4 the 21 (J421) group, which has campaigned to bring the perpetrators to justice, Miss Hambleton was part of a motor rally organised to commemorate the day.
Miss Hambleton and her co-defendants had denied any wrongdoing at the event, held amid the second national lockdown when gatherings of “more than two people” were banned.
The 58-year-old, of Crossway Lane, Kevin Gormley, 53, of Beacon Road, Michael Lutwyche, 54, of Hayes Grove, and John Porter of Corner Way, 59, all of Birmingham, were prosecuted after refusing to pay fixed penalty notices issued by the West Midlands’ force.
It had been alleged by prosecutors there was a “clear and deliberate” breach of the rules after 15 to 25 protesters, including all four defendants, got out of their vehicles at the end of the rally, outside the force’s Birmingham HQ.
But clearing the defendants after a two-day trial, District Judge Shamim Qureshi said the protest had happened against a national backdrop of changing lockdown regulations concluding that “frankly, most of the the country was confused”.
The judge pointed out the right to protest had been discussed by MPs at the time, with lawmakers told that right still “absolutely” existed.
He said the defendants’ case had “boiled down” to whether they had acted without “reasonable excuse” as set out in England’s national Covid regulations in force at the time.
He added that there were “important” points in the case, including the fact protesters “never planned to get out the cars” and the fact demonstrators were only outside Lloyd House for a few minutes, and had been “peaceful”.
Judge Qureshi also said he made “no criticism of the decision by the police not to engage with people there”, after it emerged officers had not warned any demonstrators outside Lloyd House they faced being fined.
The judge added: “Everybody knew it was going to finish, all any conversations would have done was simply drag things out, tempers could have boiled over.”
He said: “The interference with the street by coming out of the cars was minimal.
“It was for a few minutes but purposeful; a purpose by Kevin Gormley to act as a marshal and by Julie Hambleton to encourage people to leave and thank them.
“The court sees nothing wrong in anything the four defendants did and therefore the court considers they fall within the reasonable excuse defence.
“The four defendants are therefore found not guilty of the offence.”
Speaking after the verdicts, Miss Hambleton said she was “relieved that Judge Qureshi, has seen sense, basically”.
She thanked her legal team for making the group’s case “during this traumatic hearing”.
The Crown Prosecution Service proceeded with its case after a “careful” review of the facts, the court heard during the trial, and only after the four refused to pay fines issue by West Midlands Police.
Miss Hambleton said: “I do wonder if the senior management of West Midlands Police are trying to find as many ways as they can to try and re-traumatise the families of the Birmingham pub bombings.
“Because that is exactly how it feels and how it looks to many, many people.
“We did everything right, we behaved, our supporters always behave with dignity and respect out of the memory of our loved ones, which the judge acknowledged.
“There’s never been any trouble yet we are hauled before the courts for quite literally remembering our dead.
“Today is a great day for – amazingly – justice.
“As John (Porter) rightly pointed out this is the first time we have won something on behalf of Justice for the 21 – but this isn’t the justice that we are actually seeking in the long term.
“However, it is the beginning and hopefully not such a long road until we find the end where truth, justice and accountability is.”
On hearing that a fifth person had paid their fine after attending Lloyd House during the rally, the judge asked the CPS lawyer in court to “speak to police and reconsider the fine”, adding it would be a “severe injustice” for the penalty to stand, given the acquittals.
At one point on the first day of the trial, Judge Qureshi, addressing a West Midlands Police officer giving evidence, had contrasted the force’s decision not to fine any of the thousands who attended the city’s Canon Hill Park in breach of the Rule of Six in March 2021 with those on trial.
He asked: “I’ll tell you how it looks… it seems a bit of an easy target so was there any need to prosecute in this case?”
Chief Inspector Richard Cox replied: “A decision was made above me that it was appropriate, proportionate and necessary.”