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Kingpins or go-betweens? Jurors hear closing arguments in Coutts blockade trial

Alex Van Herk arrives at the courthouse in Lethbridge, Tuesday, April 16, 2024. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh) Alex Van Herk arrives at the courthouse in Lethbridge, Tuesday, April 16, 2024. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)
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LETHBRIDGE, Alta. -

A Crown prosecutor making the case against three men charged with mischief at the border blockade at Coutts, Alta., told jurors Tuesday they don’t have to determine the accused were kingpins of the protest in order find them guilty.

Steven Johnston said if jurors are satisfied the three were demonstrably supporting the blockade, they should be convicted of mischief over $5,000.

“The right to protest does not let you lay siege to property for two weeks. It was not their highway to close,” Johnston told the panel in Court of King's Bench.

“One act, one statement of encouragement can be enough to convict.

“The Crown does not have to prove these men were the leaders.”

Johnston made the comment in closing arguments at the trial of Alex Van Herk, Marco Van Huigenbos, and Gerhard Janzen in Lethbridge, Alta.

The Crown said evidence shows the accused were key players and became faces of the blockade that tied up traffic at the Canada-United States border crossing at Coutts for two weeks in early 2022 in a protest of COVID-19 rules and restrictions.

Johnston said the accused clearly supported the blockade. He told jurors the three spoke on behalf of protesters, and the evidence “should leave you with no doubt these men are guilty.”

“They use the words, ‘We — the Coutts convoy,'" said Johnston.

"They are not some mere messengers. They use the words, ‘We, our and us.'"

Defence lawyers did not call any evidence during the trial, and the accused did not testify.

However, in cross-examining witnesses, the defence argued the trio is not guilty because the demonstration involved numerous, strong-willed protesters who didn’t always publicly agree and sometimes went their separate ways during the protest.

Defence lawyer Ryan Durran told jurors his client, Van Huigenbos, was not a leader but was turned into a messenger by the RCMP.

“Marco becomes like a switchboard operator connecting calls,” said Durran.

“Marco was there to convey a message. He stumbled into a role where he was a spokesman. Marco gave the RCMP the news of the day."

Durran said Van Huigenbos was part of a group who failed to end the blockade.

“So much for leadership. He didn’t start it. He didn’t control it, and he didn’t end it. But he carried the message.”

Durran said the three accused cannot be blamed for the actions of “a horde of protesters."

The Crown called a handful of witnesses during the trial, including Mounties who were at the scene and former Coutts mayor Jim Willett.

The officers testified that as the protest dragged on, leadership coalesced around the three accused, and RCMP increasingly turned to them to negotiate.

Sgt. Greg Tulloch told court last week that he worked to establish a dialogue with the protesters and identified Van Huigenbos as the main contact.

Tulloch said he considered Van Huigenbos to be at the centre of the inner circle of the protest, followed by Janzen and, to a lesser degree, Van Herk.

The defence pointed to a video from the protesters’ gathering spot, Smuggler's Saloon, where Van Herk is heard asking for a vote to try and get everyone to leave but is met with opposition.

"I don't care, let 'em come," says one man on the video.

"The only way I'm leaving is in a (police) cruiser," says another.

Willett was asked under cross-examination if there was any one group in charge at the protest.

"It was a bunch of people I didn't know, driving a bunch of vehicles, who were upset. That was the impression I got," Willett said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 16, 2024.

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