By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) -Three men and a woman were cleared on Wednesday of causing criminal damage for helping to pull down a statue of a 17th century slave trade magnate and throw it into Bristol harbour in southwest England during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.
The bronze statue of Edward Colston, which had long been a source of division in the port city, was hauled down during an anti-racism demonstration, one of the many that swept the globe in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The incident prompted a national debate about memorials to figures linked to the slave trade or Britain's colonial past, with some government ministers arguing the action amounted to the censoring of history.
"We are ecstatic and stunned," said Rhian Graham, one of the four protesters cleared by a jury of criminal damage following a trial at Bristol Crown Court.
"We all have the ability to say how our space is decorated and who we venerate and who we celebrate and one thing that we know now is that Colston does not represent Bristol."
Graham was found not guilty along with Milo Ponsford, Jake Skuse and Sage Willoughby, all aged in their 20s or 30s.
They had argued the statue, erected in 1895, memorialised a man who prospered from the slave trade, caused offence to people in the city and had not been removed despite repeated campaigns.
Prosecutors said the case was about the rule of law and not politics, and that it was not Colston nor his slave links which were on trial.
Colston has long been a subject of debate in Bristol, where he donated lavishly to charitable causes, using the fortune he made investing in the slave-trading Royal African Company.
Years of calls by anti-racism campaigners for his statue to be removed had met with fierce local resistance, until protesters took matters into their own hands.
After a few days at the bottom of the harbour, the statue was retrieved by city authorities and put into storage. It has since been exhibited in a museum in the city while its long-term future is considered.
The incident exemplified disagreement on whether such memorials glorified some of the darkest chapters of the nation's past or simply reflected its imperial history.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said last year the country should not attempt to rewrite the past or "photoshop" its cultural landscape by hauling down monuments to certain historical figures.
(Reporting by Michael Holden and Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Andrew MacAskill and Angus MacSwan)