Four people charged with criminal damage in relation to the toppling of a statue of slave trader Edward Colston have elected to have their case heard at a crown court.
Rhian Graham, 29, Milo Ponsford, 25, Jake Skuse, 36, and Sage Willoughby, 21, appeared before Bristol Magistrates’ Court for their first hearing on Monday morning.
The bronze memorial to the 17th century slave merchant was pulled down during a Black Lives Matter protest on June 7 last year, before being dumped in Bristol Harbour and later recovered by Bristol City Council.
Charges allege that the four defendants, together with “others unknown” damaged the Colston statue and plinth of a value unknown without lawful excuse.
The defendants pleaded not guilty to the charge against each of them and elected for the case to be sent to Bristol Crown Court rather than remain at the magistrates court.
Outside court, officers from Avon and Somerset Police arrested four protesters for breaching coronavirus rules.
More than 150 people took part in an online event to protest against the charges.
District Judge Lynne Matthews told Graham, Ponsford, Skuse and Willoughby: “At your request, I now send the case to the crown court at Bristol.
“Your first hearing will be February 8. You will be given unconditional bail until that date.”
Graham is of Colston Road, Bristol, Ponsford is of Bishopstoke, Hampshire, Skuse is of Farley Close, Bristol and Willoughby is of Gloucester Road, Bristol.
Ahead of the hearing, Avon and Somerset Police had warned that anyone planning to attend the magistrates court to protest against the case would be breaking the law.
There was a large police presence outside the court and four people, two men aged 43 and 68 and two women aged 59 and 60, were arrested.
Formal warnings were also given to four other people who subsequently left the area, police said.
Gatherings of more than two people are currently prohibited by the Government due to the coronavirus pandemic and protests are not exempt in this lockdown.
A force spokesman said: “In light of the pandemic organisers subsequently urged people to gather online and more than 150 people joined a video call this morning.
“However, a small number of people chose to turn up in person, resulting in officers engaging with them before taking enforcement action when they refused to leave.
“We’d like to once again thank those who dialled into the online event for recognising the gravity of the health crisis we continue to endure.”
Following the court hearing, Hodge Jones & Allen solicitors, which represents three of the four defendants, issued a statement.
Raj Chada, head of criminal defence at the firm, and Laura O’Brien, associate, said: “We will fight these criminal charges vigorously on behalf of our clients.
“We are committed to defending them and their right to a fair trial in this important case.
“We ask that their privacy is respected.”