London police apologise and pay compensation to women held at vigil

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) - London's police force has apologised and paid "substantial damages" to two women detained at a vigil held in memory of Sarah Everard who was raped and murdered by a serving officer, their lawyers said on Thursday.

Marketing executive Everard was abducted off a street in London as she walked home in March 2021 and her body was found in a woodland about 50 miles (80 km) away some days later.

News of her killing and the disclosure a serving officer, Wayne Couzens, had been arrested led to anger and protests, and hundreds of people, mainly women, attended a vigil at Clapham Common in southwest London three days after Everard's body was found, and close to where she was last seen.

The women, Dania Al-Obeid and Patsy Stevenson, were among those who were held by officers and then taken away in handcuffs after police said the gathering was in breach of COVID-19 lockdown rules and the crowd had refused orders to disperse.

Photographs of Stevenson being restrained and pinned down by officers were beamed around the world and became the enduring image of the incident, leading to widespread criticism of heavy-handed policing.

Bindmans, the law firm who represented women, said in a statement the Metropolitan Police had now settled civil claims brought by the women, paying them damages and issuing an apology.

"It has taken over two years to reach this conclusion," Stevenson said in a statement.

"It’s been a really tiring and difficult process but it has felt important to push for some form of accountability and justice for myself and all women who attended the vigil to express our anger and grief over the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving Metropolitan Police officer."

A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police said the vigil had taken place in extraordinary circumstances and its officers had acted in good faith.

"A protracted legal dispute is not in the interests of any party, least of all the complainants who we recognise have already experienced significant distress as a result of this incident," the spokesperson said.

"The most appropriate decision, to minimise the ongoing impact on all involved, was to reach an agreed settlement."

The Everard murder and the policing of the subsequent vigil was one of a series of scandals that have plagued the London force in recent years, leading to its former chief Cressida Dick being pressured to resign.

An independent watchdog report weeks after the vigil concluded police had acted appropriately.

But a scornful review published in March this year, commissioned after Couzens was jailed for life, labelled the force misogynistic and highlighted the incident as an example of its failings and the need for reform.

(Reporting by Michael Holden; editing by Diane Craft)