Belfast Telegraph

Anti-abortion protester Bernie Smyth given community service for harassing Marie Stopes clinic director

By Alan Erwin

A leading anti-abortion campaigner must serve 100 hours community service for harassing a Marie Stopes clinic director at her Belfast offices, a judge ordered today.

Precious Life chief Bernie Smyth was also told to pay Dawn Purvis £2,000 compensation for the campaign against her.

Deputy District Judge Chris Holmes imposed a five-year restraining order to stop the defendant pestering or interfering with the former Progressive Unionist MLA.

As part of a wide-ranging sentence he further banned Mrs Smyth from going within 20 yards of the front door of the city centre clinic over the next five years.

Judge Holmes said: "The behaviour of stopping people, questioning them about why they were going into the premises, was a direct harassment of Dawn Purvis."

Mrs Smyth, 52, is now set to appeal both the guilty verdict and punishment handed down.

She had arrived at Belfast Magistrates' Court facing the threat of a possible jail sentence for her offences and how the allegations were contested.

Ahead of the hearing a group of around 20 supporters gathered in a circle to pray outside the courtroom.

The mother-of-four had denied harassing Ms Purvis on two dates earlier this year.

Pro-life campaigners have staged protests and handed out leaflets at the centre which offers sexual and reproductive healthcare and early medical abortions within Northen Ireland's laws since it opened on Great Victoria Street in October 2012.

In her evidence Ms Purvis said she was left frightened for her safety following the two alleged incidents.

During an exchange with protesters on January 9 the clinic director said she put her hand up and asked them to stop harassing her.

At that stage Mrs Smyth was said to have replied in an exaggerated Ballymena/American drawl: "You ain't seen harassment yet, darling."

She originally denied to police having used the word harassment, but on viewing CCTV footage of the incident accepted it had been said in a joke.

The second alleged incident occurred on February 13 after Ms Purvis' son called to her office with a female friend.

She told the court the pair were picking up frozen food which needed to be put in the freezer.

Ms Purvis claimed that as she walked them out of the centre one of the protesters followed the girl up the street.

According to her account Mrs Smyth, of Suffolk Street in Ballymena, then started to cackle menacingly.

But the defendant claims she was set up having just been served with a police notice warning of potential action for harassment.

She alleged instead that Ms Purvis "growled" at her through the clinic front door in a bid to provoke a reaction.

The Precious Life founder rejected prosecution contentions that she "cackled like a witch", insisting instead that her laughter was fuelled by nerves and anxiety.

Convicting her last month, Judge Holmes held that anti-abortion campaigners stationed outside the clinic had been forcing any women of child-bearing age to identify there reasons for entering.

He described Mrs Smyth as someone who has worked tirelessly to shut down the Marie Stopes Clinic.

In a scathing attack on how the allegations were fought, he said the case had been run on a "no-holds barred, vicious and malicious fashion".

At that stage the judge held that an investigating police officer was deliberately slandered, while Ms Purvis herself came under unwarranted attack.

But during setencing today he acknowledged former defence counsel had distanced Mrs Smyth for any accusations made.

It also emerged that a report prepared for the case assessed the chances of her re-offending as high.

The defendant's new lawyer argued that the evaluation "beggars belief" and claimed it must be a mistake.

Seamus Lannon suggested she should just be fined because only the minimum instances of harassment were involved.

Urging leniency, the barrister said his client had led a blameless life until now.

"Not only that, but she has spent a large part of her life selflessly serving society in a variety of ways," he told the court.

"It's all sectors of society, in particular she has helped the under-privileged and the vulnerable."

Mr Lannon also stressed: "She bears no ill-will to Ms Purvis and wishes her no harm and has never wished her any harm."

Although

But Judge Holmes rejected his contention that a restraining order was unnecessary.

Imposing the no-go zone along with a fine and community service, he accepted Mrs Smyth and Ms Purvis may come face to face in a television studio or elsewhere.

He made clear, however, that the defendant must not be within 20 yards of the Marie Stopes premises.

"I'm also restraining you, in conjunction with that, from pestering, interfering with or molesting any persons seeking to leave these premises during the period of five years," he told her.

"Although the prosecution in this case may have acted on two specific incidents, I have held there was a large number of incidents.

"You were harassing Dawn Purvis by harassing the people coming into the premises."

Mrs Smyth was greeted by cheering supporters as she left court.

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