A Belgian court today gave ten Greenpeace activists a suspended one month jail sentence and fine for taking part in a climate action there in December 2009. This conviction is out of proportion to their peaceful protest, and an appeal is under active consideration.

It's very troubling to see the increase in restrictions and prosecutions for peaceful protest currently occurring in countries that claim a tradition of free speech. The stage was set for this trial at the recent How Free is Freedom of Speech conference (French language) organized by Greenpeace Belgium and Amnesty international.

The action took place during a December 2009 gathering of heads of state and leading European politicians, just before their departure for the Copenhagen UN Climate Summit. Ten Greenpeace activists arrived at the entrance of the building in Brussels where the European Summit was being held. Stepping onto the red carpet laid out to welcome leaders, three activists held up banners and read out a message calling on the politicians to save the climate. It was classic!

The court found all ten people guilty of “using false documents”, as if they used forged official documents to dupe the security guards at the Brussels summit. But that never happened. Indeed, the activists were in cars displaying placards with the Greenpeace logo, and some even wore badges identifying that they were from Greenpeace. Like many successful peaceful protests, it depended on wit, charm and a great deal of luck.

One Greenpeace staff member who faced the same charge and one additional accusation was acquitted by the court on all counts. He had no role in the action and was officially accredited as a journalist at the summit. The eleven people who appeared before court are from Belgium, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

Recently, Greenpeace activists have faced prosecution for peaceful actions in Denmark, Japan and on an additional issue in Belgium.

Unreasonable and disproportionate prosecution of peaceful protest is contrary to international standards such as the rights to freedom of expression and assembly. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg makes clear that the role of non-governmental organisations such as Greenpeace is crucial to matters of public interest, such as health and the environment.

We anticipate pushback when we take on the interests of big polluters. Their well-funded efforts to discredit, undermine and silence opposition are a sign of our success. But what we’re seeing now is something different: a deeper, global move to silence those with dissenting voices and the tactics of protest available to them.