Kent Police has apologised “unreservedly” to a journalist who was unlawfully arrested and detained after taking photographs of activists protesting outside a controversial asylum camp earlier this year.
Mr Aitchison was arrested in January after attending a demonstration outside Napier Barracks, in Folkestone, and taking photos as protesters threw buckets of fake blood at the gates of the site. The images were later used in local press reports.
About six hours after the demonstration, five police officers arrived at the home of the Folkestone resident, who has worked as a photographer for 26 years, and arrested him under suspicion of criminal damage of a dwelling. He was detained in a police cell for more than five hours.
The case was dropped a week later: Kent Police said that on examining CCTV footage it had decided to refuse charges as there was no evidence against him.
More than eight months later, Mr Pughsley sent Mr Aitchison a letter stating: “Further to the damages received by Mr Aitchison in compensation, I apologise unreservedly to him for his unlawful arrest, false imprisonment and breach of his human rights.”
The letter, seen by The Independent, continues: “I expressly acknowledge there was no culpability on the part of Mr Aitchison, who was performing an important function publicising the protest in the public interest.
“I recognise the fundamental importance of free speech and the independent of journalists; I accept they should not be at risk of arrest and of having their equipment seized when acting lawfully in reporting matters of public interest.
“I do not underestimate the impact of the above wrongs on Mr Aitchison and his family for which I extend my regrets and reiterate my apology.”
In light of the apology, Mr Aitchsion told The Independent: “I’m hugely relieved that I can now put this all behind me, and I can continue to work. I felt like it was a real injustice. I was doing my job. It shouldn’t have happened and I’m glad that it’s finally been resolved.”
He added: “This feels like a very important outcome, that the police have acknowledged that photographers and journalists have a right to work. We must be able to work without fear of arrest and freedom to independently report on events.
“It was a stressful and totally unnecessary experience to go through, both professionally and personally, not knowing what impact this could have on my work, and how distressing it was for my children to have to witness the whole thing.
“I would like to thank everyone who supported me during this challenging time, it has made a significant difference throughout.”
A media freedom alert was filed with the Council of Europe and submissions were made to the UN special rapporteur on human rights over Mr Aitchison’s treatment.
A spokesperson for the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), of which the photographer is a member, and which raised concerns about his arrest at the time, said it was delighted with the outcome, describing it as a “victory for journalism and journalists”.
“The NUJ are thankful to Bindmans solicitors in representing our member, Andy, in what has been a very difficult and stressful time.”
Rachel Harger, of Bindmans Solicitors, who represented Mr Aitchison throughout the ordeal, said he should never have faced criminal charges for reporting on a demonstration in his capacity as a freelance photographer.
“I am relieved that the Chief Constable of Kent Police has accepted this and acknowledged the fundamental importance of freedom of speech, and that journalists should not be at risk of arrest or having their equipment seized while reporting on events,” she added.
Napier Barracks, a former Ministry of Defence site that was repurposed as asylum accommodation last September, has attracted widespread criticism over concerns that it is unsafe and unsuitable for asylum seekers, including from the Prison Inspectorate and the Home Office’s own immigration watchdog.