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'McLibel' pair wins rights case

• Read the ruling:  European Court of Human Rightsexternal link
McDonald's Corporation
Great Britain

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- The British government violated the rights of two vegetarian activists convicted of libeling the U.S. fast food chain McDonald's, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled.

The court ruled Tuesday that "McLibel" environmental campaigners David Morris and Helen Steel should have been given legal aid by the British government.

The British legal system breached the right to a fair trial and freedom of expression, the European judges said.

Morris and Steel had been found guilty of libeling McDonald's in 1997 and had been ordered to pay damages for handing out leaflets attacking the company's working practices and policies.

But on Tuesday, the Strasbourg-based court ordered Britain to pay Morris and Steel a total of 35,000 euros ($45,400, £24,000) and offer them a retrial, it said. London has three months to appeal the decision.

In its ruling, the court said the denial of state legal aid to the defendants, a part-time barmaid and an unemployed single father, had skewed the case from the start.

"The denial of legal aid to the applicants had deprived them of the opportunity to present their case effectively before the court and contributed to an unacceptable inequality of arms with McDonald's," it wrote.

The ruling also argued there was "a strong public interest in enabling such groups and individuals outside the mainstream to contribute to the public debate."

Tuesday's verdict is the end of a courtroom fight in which the pair accused the British government of breaching their human rights because British law denies libel defendants legal aid, and because the libel laws obliged them to justify every word of anti-McDonald's allegations contained in the leaflets they distributed.

Speaking outside the court, Mark Stephens, the lawyer for the pair, said: "The European Court of Human Rights found there were violations of their human rights perpetrated on them -- that there was procedural unfairness in the case and that the procedures adopted were not fair."

McDonald's launched the libel action after Morris and Steel took part in a leafleting campaign against the company.

They had been handing out leaflets called "What's Wrong with McDonald's," accusing the company of paying low wages, cruelty to animals used in its products and dozens of other malpractices.

McDonald's won and Britain's High Court ordered Morris and Steel to pay £76,000 ($135,000) in damages. The so-called "McLibel 2" refused to pay at the end of the 314-day libel trial -- the longest civil or criminal action in English legal history.

Instead they went to the Strasbourg court, claiming the UK libel laws operated heavily in favor of companies like McDonald's.

They said the system breached their human rights because they were denied legal aid and because they were obliged to justify every word of the allegations against McDonald's.

The court agreed, saying the lack of legal aid effectively denied the pair the right to a fair trial as guaranteed by the Human Rights Convention, to which the UK is a signatory. It also breached their right to freedom of expression.

In a statement, Morris and Steel said: "Having largely beaten McDonald's and won some damning judgments against them in our trial, we have now exposed the notoriously oppressive and unfair UK laws. As a result of the European court ruling today, the government may be forced to amend or scrap some of the existing UK laws.

"We hope that this will result in greater public scrutiny and criticism of powerful organizations whose practices have a detrimental effect on society and the environment.

"The McLibel campaign has already proved that determined and widespread grass roots protest and defiance can undermine those who try to silence their critics, and also render oppressive laws unworkable.

"The continually growing opposition for McDonald's and all it stands for is a vindication of all the efforts of those around the world who have been exposing and challenging the corporation's business practice."

McDonald's UK press office issued the following statement: "The case taken to the European Court of Human Rights relates to a claim made against the UK government in respect of the legal framework of England and Wales. As McDonald's was not a party to this case, it is inappropriate for us to comment on the case or its outcome.

"It is important to note, although the so-called 'McLibel' case came to court in 1994, the allegations related to practices in the '80s. The world has moved on since then and so has McDonald's."

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