Political banners flown over Headingley Stadium are "free speech" say West Yorkshire Police after criticism

A plane flies over with a banner reading "India stop Genocide & free Kasshmir" during the ICC Cricket World Cup group stage match at Headingley. Photo: Nigel French/PA Wire.
A plane flies over with a banner reading "India stop Genocide & free Kasshmir" during the ICC Cricket World Cup group stage match at Headingley. Photo: Nigel French/PA Wire.

Political banners that were flown over Headingley Stadium during the Cricket World Cup are "free speech" and not a criminal matter, West Yorkshire Police have said after criticism from the International Cricket Council.

Banners reading "Justice for Kashmir" and "help end mob lynching in India" were seen flying across the stadium during the India v Sri Lanka match on Saturday, July 6.

A similar banner was flown the weekend before during the Afghanistan v Pakistan game which said "Justice for Balochistan".

Over the weekend, the International Cricket Council said they were "incredibly disappointed" that a political protest banner had flown across the stadium again.

The ICC said in a statement: "We do not condone any sort of political messages at the ICC Men's Cricket World Cup.

"Throughout the tournament, we have worked with local police forces around the country to prevent this type of protest occurring. After the previous incident, we were assured by West Yorkshire Police there would not be a repeat of this issue, so we are very dissatisfied it has happened again."

However, West Yorkshire Police released a statement today which said their involvement in the situation has been "misrepresented" and that people have a democratic and legal right to protest.

Chief Superintendent Steve Cotter, Leeds District Commander, said: “We want to make our position clear following the two recent incidents at Headingley cricket ground where light aircraft carrying protest messages flew over during international matches, as we feel our involvement in the situation has been misrepresented.

“In our democratic society people have the legal right to protest, and a balance always needs to be struck between that right and the rights and freedoms of others to go about their lawful business.

“West Yorkshire Police has a long-standing record of successfully managing peaceful, lawful protest and does this in line with national guidance and legislation.

“We had no prior knowledge of the initial flyovers on either occasion but when they were brought to our attention during the matches, we assessed the content of the messages as being free speech that did not constitute any criminal offence.

He added: “We also liaised with air traffic control who confirmed that the flights were legitimate and in keeping with their regulations for this controlled airspace.

“As such, no assurances were given by us to the International Cricket Council that any further flights would be prevented, nor would we have had any legal basis for doing so."

There were violent scenes during and after the Afghanistan v Pakistan match but West Yorkshire Police has stated that the violence was not linked to the flyovers.

Chief Supt Cotter added: “We are also satisfied that the disorder that occurred at the match between Pakistan and Afghanistan, which remains under investigation, was not linked to the flyovers. At the match between India and Sri Lanka officers in the ground noted that there was no discernible adverse reaction from the crowd to the flyovers that took place then.

“We worked very closely with the Yorkshire County Cricket Club and the International Cricket Council to ensure that everyone attending these events could have a safe and enjoyable time and we will continue to put appropriate policing plans in place for any future high-profile sporting events while at the same time respecting people’s right to protest.”

The disruption is over a political conflict between India and Pakistan over the ruling of the Kashmir region, which both countries lay claim to but share rulership of.