Peter Tatchell on arresting Robert Mugabe and interrupting Archbishop Carey

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I was lucky enough to meet Peter Tatchell in April 2011, when I was charged with interviewing him for One of the best things about being an interviewer is that you get to meet your heroes. One of the worst things is that you end up having to leave out huge swathes of conversation and comment in order to meet your word count.

In honour of his 60th birthday, I would like to share with you what I believe are two of Peter’s finest moments, in his own words: his hijacking of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter Sermon in 1998 and his first attempt at a citizen’s arrest of Robert Mugabe. I was not able to include these in my original piece, but both are brilliant accounts of real-life human rights activism.

Peter on his Easter protest, 12 April 1998:

“George Carey was notoriously homophobic,” Peter tells me. “Not only did he disparage gay people in relationships, he actively campaigned against equality, encouraging MPs and members of the House of Lords to vote against equality. For eight years we’d tried to have a dialogue with him and he refused to meet us.”

“So, we decided that if he wouldn’t come and meet us we’d go and meet him. And where better than on Easter Sunday in his own cathedral when the whole thing would be televised?”

“We went down to Canterbury in a two-car convoy dressed in our Sunday best. We went into the cathedral early and sat separately from one another just a bit back from the pulpit in a side aisle so we weren’t in full view. Our placards were folded up and stuffed in our jackets. We’d decided we wouldn’t interrupt any of the sacred parts of the service and instead we waited for the sermon, when Carey usually expressed his views on topical issues.”

“When he began his sermon one of our members, who was designated the lead, got up out of his pew and walked calmly towards the front. He noticed two churchwardens by the pulpit and had the foresight to see that they might be a problem so he did a distraction exercise. He feigned having an asthma attack and staggered off to the far side of the cathedral. The churchwardens rushed over to help him, which meant the rest of us could walk calmly but quickly into the pulpit.”

“When we got there Carey was in full flow. As I stood next to him he looked rather shocked, but then he just stood back and gave me the pulpit. So, I delivered a short alternative sermon, which didn’t attack or insult him or the Christian religion. I merely criticized his support for homophobic discrimination in a very calm and reasoned manner.”

Peter was arrested and eventually fined GBP 18.60 for breaking the 1860 Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act: proof that Magistrates aren’t entirely devoid of humour.

“It’s my only conviction,” says Peter. Not bad, when you consider he’s been arrested over 300 times. “The positive outcome was that from that moment onwards, George Carey hardly ever again spoke out publicly against gay equality. He also finally met with the Lesbian and Gay and Christian Movement for the first time.”

Peter on his attempt at a citizen’s arrest of Robert Mugabe in 1999:

“Human rights defenders in Zimbabwe approached me in the early 1990s with a request that I help expose the abuses happening under Mugabe’s regime. I hit on the idea of using the power of citizen’s arrest to try and bring Mugabe to justice. The UN Convention Against Torture was the strongest legal basis for seeking to arrest Mugabe and put him on trial. The Convention had been incorporated into British law. Under it, any public official who commits, authorises, acquiesces or condones an act of torture can be put on trial. So the legal basis for his arrest was very strong.”

“In October 1999 I got a late-night anonymous phone call advising me that Mugabe was staying at the St James’ Court hotel in London. I gambled on the fact that it was a serious tip-off and the next day contacted Amnesty International to gather the required evidence against him.”

“Three of us from Outrage turned up outside the hotel on a freezing Saturday morning together with a freelance journalist, photographer and cameraman. We tried to look inconspicuous by reading newspapers and not standing as a group, but after two hours the concierge noticed us. Then a little while later from the side entrance, five or six African-looking guys appeared, pointing in our direction.”

“I had an idea. I walked across the street to talk to them: “Hi guys, I’m from the News of The World. This is my team. Listen, we know Elton John is staying in this hotel with his new boyfriend. We’ve got to get photos for tomorrow’s paper. Can you tell me what room he’s in?” They looked at me as if I was bonkers. I said: “Look, I’ll give you fifty quid. No? I’ll give you seventy-five quid.” Then I turned to one of them and added: “I know you. You’re definitely Elton’s security team, I remember you from the Wembley concert two months ago. You were there, remember?””

“I kept this up for quite a while and in the end they were all laughing and walked off. Sure enough, ten minutes later, out came Mugabe in his limousine. I scratched the top of my head to signal he was in the car and my Outrage colleagues down the road ran out in front of the car to stop him. It screeched to a halt about six inches from their legs! I ran from behind and opened the car door. Amazingly, it was unlocked. I reached in and put my right hand on Mugabe’s arm and held up my left hand to show I didn’t have a weapon.”

“I told him: “President Mugabe, you are under arrest on charges of torture, torture is a crime under international law. I am now summoning the police.” You should have seen the look on his face. His eyes popped. His jaw dropped. He’s quite dark-skinned, but a visible ashen colour came across his face. I think he thought he was going to be killed. I thought to myself: ‘Well now you know how your victim’s feel, only we’re not going to kill you or take you to a torture chamber, we’re going to take you a court of law and put you on trial.’”