ON Wednesday this week, Richard Loizou, Richard Roberts and Simon Roscoe Blevins woke up in jail cells for the 21st day of a 16-month prison sentence in HMP Preston. Luckily it was also the last time that they woke up there, with the Court of Appeal quashing their sentences that day on the basis that they were “manifestly excessive”.

And anyone following the case would be hard-pressed to disagree, given that their “crime” was taking part in a four-day protest which mostly involved sitting on top of a lorry at the UK’s first fracking site near Blackpool.

READ MORE: Police Scotland drops fracking protest ‘terrorist’ tag

Regardless of whether you share the views of Loizou, Blevins and Roberts on fracking itself, the ridiculous sentences handed down to them should give us all cause for concern. The right to peacefully protest is one of our most fundamental, and it’s one of the best ways we have as citizens to hold power to account and act as a check on its otherwise relentless snowballing. It is an entitlement so vital to the functioning of a healthy democracy that it is enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.

Civil disobedience is a crucial part of an activist’s arsenal precisely because it so often gets the job done. After all, when you’re railing against the interests of the privileged and powerful, doing so within their own parameters will only get you so far. There is a place for the likes of polite meetings and online campaigns – particularly in tandem with other action, and for those who face barriers to traditional activism spaces – but it wasn’t consultations or petitions that got secured a minimum wage, won women the vote, or ended apartheid: it was collective and direct action by those who were prepared to put themselves on the line for a greater cause.

The sentence originally handed down to Loizou, Blevins and Roberts was the first prison sentence given to environmental protesters since 1932, and it came from a judge who was later reported to have links to the oil and gas industry, with his father and sister running JC Altham and Sons – a company believed to be part of the supply chain for energy company Centrica who have invested millions of pounds in fracking.

In many ways there is no better argument for guarding tightly our right to disrupt and disobey in pursuit of a moral aim than this tangled web of power and influence, within which it seems likely that these protesters would never have faced a fair hearing. Complaints about Judge Robert Altham are now being considered by the judicial conduct investigations office; it’s fair to speculate that if he is found guilty of wrongdoing, he’s unlikely to face a 16-month prison sentence for it.

The National:

By way of an explanation for the prison sentences he handed out, Judge Altham also commented that “each of [the protesters] remains motivated by an unswerving confidence that they are right”, adding that “even at their trial they felt justified by their actions”.

But of which protesters exactly is this not true? As pointed out by civil liberties organisation Liberty, who intervened in the case, this simply sets a precedent that the more committed a protester is to their cause, the more likely they are to face a prison sentence. It’s a logic which equates those who are most dedicated to challenging societal evils to those evils themselves – or even treats them far more harshly.

This is a mindset which has also become evident in Scotland’s fracking conversation, following a report by The Ferret and the Sunday National which uncovered how Police Scotland brands anti-fracking protesters “domestic extremists” and categorises them alongside the likes of Islamic State and neo-nazi groups. The framing of peaceful environmental activists this way represents a threat to protest as dangerous as the excessive sentencing of Blackpool’s protesters does: in both cases, the underlying threat is that exercising your fundamental human rights will see you branded a dangerous and immutable criminal.

I happen to agree with protesters who oppose fracking on the grounds that it is dangerous, disruptive, polluting and will at best undermine any attempts to solve our urgent climate change problem, and at worst actively exacerbate it.

But even if I didn’t, I’d still find their treatment scandalous and the creeping threat to our right to protest extremely worrying. As Simon Roscoe Blevins himself pointed out, the overturning of the sentences of three middle-class white men is a small victory when compared to the treatment of women, people of colour and LGBT people who dare to step out of line by society’s stringent standards. If we stand for this injustice against our most visible, privileged campaigners, those who lack the same resources and voice stand little chance at all.

In a civilised society, protest should be considered a vital component of a healthy democracy and active citizenship, and it should have the potential to make real positive change to everyone’s benefit. In today’s world of exorbitant corporate power, excessive hoarding of wealth, and shady political dealings, it is instead seen as a tug-of-war; a zero-sum game in which rabid extremists fight by any means necessary to wrestle back power. And in the context of deep-rooted inequality, impending climate catastrophe and the strengthening of dangerous powers, we should all be grateful that they do.

Civil disobedience terrifies those with power because it works. That’s exactly why it has to be protected at all costs.