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Fears over police misuse of anti-sectarian powers

LEADING lawyers have raised concerns that football fans in Scotland are having their human rights undermined by new police powers introduced to crack down on sectarianism.

crackdown: A year on from the introduction of the Offensive Behaviour at Football legislation, police have been accused of heavy-handed tactics. Picture: PA
crackdown: A year on from the introduction of the Offensive Behaviour at Football legislation, police have been accused of heavy-handed tactics. Picture: PA

They are making their claims in public for the first time about laws that have seen supporters put under surveillance orders and even quizzed by detectives at airports when returning from holidays.

A year since the introduction of the Offensive Behaviour at Football legislation, lawyers claim supporters are facing police harassment, with their rights being routinely eroded.

And many cases eventually brought against fans are either dropped or found not proven, it is claimed.

However, the officer in charge of the police's national football unit (FoCUS) says no complaints have been received from lawyers, adding that while arrests have remained static, convictions are increasing.

Instances of alleged heavy-handed enforcement include a 17-year-old kept in police cells and a young offenders institute for almost a week after being refused bail before later receiving a banning order.

One fan's application for a taxi driver's licence was opposed by police who said he was the subject of an application for a Football Banning Order despite no ban materialising.

The prosecution of 18-year-old Connor McGhie, a Rangers fan who received three months for sectarian remarks at a game in Inverness, has also been highlighted as an example of the legislation "cracking a nut".

Most of the attention is also focused on Celtic's Green Brigade fans and Rangers' Union Bears group, neither of which are associated by the Football Co-ordination Unit for Scotland with casuals or illegal groups.

Paul Kavanagh, director of Glasgow and Edinburgh based legal firm Gildeas, said: "While going on holiday with their families, people who have been recognised at football matches by the police are stopped routinely at Glasgow Airport.

"It is correct for people who sing sectarian songs or shout sectarian insults to be arrested and processed through the courts. However, what about a person displaying a banner that is not sectarian in anyway, simply walking to a football match and being told to provide his name and address to police for no apparent reason, or walking down the street with his family and being spoken to by the police as they recognised him at a football match? Where is their right to privacy? Where is the crime?

"Innocent people are being criminalised for things which are not criminal, purely because of the interpretation and implementation of the legislation."

Glasgow-based advocate Owen Mullan added: "I've acted for men and women never previously in any difficulty with the police and courts, but who now complain of harassment.

"Fans of various clubs can't understand why the police follow them as they make their way to football grounds, why they are filmed as they watch football, and why they are continuously searched and required to provide their details to the police."

Solicitor Bill McCluskey, a former police officer, said: "There is no doubt supporters are routinely subject to surveillance."

A police source said surveillance gave police squads "something to do", adding: "Intelligence gathering isn't just about a specific crime. It's also for databases."

Head of FoCUS, Superintendent Stephen McAllister, said he had yet to see evidence of routine searches or surveillance, despite being frequently presented with allegations.

He added: "Our filming of the Green Brigade at Celtic Park at the weekend lasted 30 seconds. But that doesn't get out. We have the powers to stop, ask for details and search under a number of powers but it's simply untrue we have a carte blanche approach to this. If there's evidence of this happening inappropriately we will investigate.

"Football disorder is not like the 1980s but it's still there. The new laws have made convictions easier."

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: "The 87% charge rate and 83% conviction rate for people arrested under this legislation shows that it's working well.

"The act strengthens and improves the law dealing with sectarianism at football. We introduced this law in response to police and prosecutors when they told us they needed greater powers to take a hard line on sectarianism – recent events have further underlined this need."

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