Followers of the controversial spiritual group Falun Gong have won a key legal battle for the right to erect a protest structure outside the Chinese consulate on busy Granville Street.
In a judgment released Tuesday, the B.C. Court of Appeal overturned an earlier B.C. Supreme Court ruling in 2009 that resulted in removal of the rudimentary hut the sect had maintained around-the-clock at the consulate for seven years, much to the unhappiness of consulate officials.
The unanimous decision by a three-member appeal panel found that a city bylaw restricting unapproved sidewalk structures did not provide sufficient protection for freedom of expression, and thus violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom.
Local Falun Gong supporters have been peacefully protesting persecution of the sect by the People's Republic of China, which has jailed, tortured and executed many of its followers, according to human rights groups.
However, the appeal court granted the city six months to redraft its sidewalks bylaw to bring it into line with the charter. During that time, Falun Gong will remain under a court injunction, preventing them from rebuilding their protest hut.
Nonetheless, Falun Gong follower Sue Zhang said she felt "relieved and happy" that the court had upheld their constitutional rights.
"In China, you don't have freedom of speech or basic human rights," she said. "But here, it's Canada, and we think we should be able to express our rights, when the reason is to raise awareness about genocide."
City engineer Peter Judd said the city intends to go back to the bylaw drawing board to bring forward a new law that will confirm to the appeal court's decision.
"Falun Gong has been pretty good all along, and we support their right to free expression," Mr. Judd said. "It's just the method they used that gave us some concern."
The bid to remove the protest structure was launched after former mayor Sam Sullivan complained about its permanent presence outside the consulate.
Ms. Zhang said her group believes that the city was pressed by the Chinese government and the consulate to take action.
With a report from Vivian Luk