A pro-life campaigner has denied cackling like a witch in a bid to intimidate the director of the North’s first abortion clinic, a court has heard.
Bernadette Smyth, 51, a high-profile anti-abortion protester from Suffolk Street, Ballymena, Co Antrim, is contesting claims she harassed Dawn Purvis twice outside the Marie Stopes facility in Belfast earlier this year.
She said: “I am a Christian. I am not a witch.”
Ms Smyth, a grandmother who heads up the Precious Life group which holds regular protests outside the city centre clinic, appeared before a sitting of Belfast Magistrates’ Court this morning.
The harassment, which is alleged to have happened on two occasions in January and February this year, left Ms Purvis, a former elected member of Northern Ireland’s Assembly, feeling afraid for her life, the court heard.
It was claimed the former leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), which gives political advice to the Ulster Volunteer Force loyalist paramilitary grouping, felt too afraid to sit in a room with Ms Smyth, even if police officers were present.
Nicola McCartan, barrister for the Public Prosecution Service (PPS), suggested that Ms Smyth had acted in a deliberately menacing way while demonstrating outside the clinic laughing in a mocking, jeering “witch’s manner”.
“You were there for the sole purpose in order that she would be intimidated and harassed,” said Ms McCartan.
However, Ms Smyth told the court she did not believe her actions had been criminal although she did acknowledge her laughter may not have sounded normal.
“I laughed, that was the be all and end all,” she said.
“I laughed out of nervousness. It was a silly, stupid laugh. If I had not laughed I would have cried.”
In the witness box dressed in a purple-coloured suit and wearing a pearl necklace, a heavily made-up Ms Smyth insisted she only ever wanted to reach out to women in crisis.
She said: “My purpose is to save lives, not harass, not to intimidate, not to hurt another human being.”
And she vowed never to be back before the courts.
She said: “I will never be before this court again. I have never broken the law not do I intend to break the law or harass any human being and that includes Dawn Purvis.”
At one stage during proceedings District Judge Chris Holmes interjected instructing Ms Smyth to answer the questions being put by prosecutors.
He said: “This would get done a lot quicker if you listen to the question put to you. Try and concentrate on the question being asked.”
Marie Stopes opened its first clinic in Ireland amid huge controversy in October 2012. It provides access to terminations of pregnancy up to nine weeks’ gestation from its city centre base.
On the day it opened hundreds of protesters from across Ireland gathered outside to show their opposition and to pray.
The 1967 Abortion Act does not apply in Northern Ireland and terminations are only carried out under strict conditions if there is a serious risk to the life or mental health of the mother.
Legislation outlawing abortion in the Republic of Ireland was changed last year to allow terminations under certain strict circumstances following a huge public outcry after the death of an Indian dentist who was refused an abortion in Co Galway.
A number of pro-life campaigners packed into the public gallery of courtroom number seven to watch proceedings.
The case was adjourned and will resume again on a date to be fixed.