LONDON — London police should not have used counter-terrorism powers to question and detain a French publisher at a train station in April on suspicion he might have been involved in violent protests, a report released Friday concluded.
Ernest Moret was on his way to the London Book Fair on April 17 when he was stopped by counter-terror border officers at St. Pancras Station, questioned for nearly five hours and then arrested and held overnight for refusing to provide the passcode to his phone — even though officers concluded he posed no threat to national security.
Jonathan Hall, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, said officers should not have used Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which gives them exceptional powers to root out terrorists, to determine if Moret had been involved in the turbulent pension reform demonstrations that had roiled France for months.
“The problem with exercising counterterrorism powers to investigate whether an individual is a peaceful protestor or a violent protestor is that it is using a sledge-hammer to crack a nut,” Hall said.
Moret's lawyer said the Metropolitan Police needs to apologize and pay his client for jailing him and damaging his reputation.
“The report is a complete vindication of our client’s stance, citing his right to privacy, in refusing to supply his personal data to police,” attorney Richard Parry said. “The police demand was totally unjustified.”
The Metropolitan Police said in a statement it would refer the matter to the Independent Office of Police Conduct that investigates misconduct complaints and would review the findings.
“Schedule 7 is an important power in protecting the borders of the U.K. and remains a vital tool in our efforts to counter the terrorist threat," Commander Dominic Murphy said. “But the public rightly expects that the use of such powers is always carefully considered, and as (the report) states: that there is constant vigilance and attention to safeguards to ensure it is not used in a way that is contrary to individual rights and the wider public interest."
Moret's arrest sparked outrage from publishers and free speech advocates at the time and the Metropolitan Police released no information about why they stopped him.
His employer and Verso Books, a radical London publishing house, complained that officers had justified their questioning by claiming Moret participated in the stormy protests against French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to raise the age of retirement from 62 to 64. They said he also was asked to name anti-government authors the publisher worked with.
Hall said Moret was asked about people he associated with and his political views.
“This was an investigation into public order for which counter-terrorism powers were never intended to be used,” Hall said. “The rights of free expression and protest are too important in a democracy to allow individuals to be investigated for potential terrorism merely because they may have been involved in protests that have turned violent.”
Hall said in listening to recordings of the interrogation it was hard not to sympathize with Moret, who he said "showed dignified composure and good humour throughout, despite the inevitable impact on him of being told he was subject to counter-terrorism powers." Moret told officers that the decision to detain him and seize his devices was “crazy” and “not normal” in a democracy, Hall said.
The publishers had said French authorities were complicit and had “whispered” questions to British authorities. Hall said there was no indication the counter-terror law had been used at the behest of any foreign country.
Hall noted that officers concluded that they did not think Moret was a threat to national security or would use violence for political means. Nonetheless, he had to provide a DNA sample and his phone and laptop were seized and he spent about 17 hours in custody.
British prosecutors decided last month not to charge Moret.
Hall recommended that officers’ Code of Practice be amended to specify that Schedule 7 powers not be used for public order policing and that officers should receive training to that effect.