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Cape Town - A gathering of people chained to the stairs of the Cape Town civic centre entrance last year was peaceful, a policeman told the city's magistrate's court on Wednesday.

Warrant Officer Jacob Pietersen testified that he and another officer had been called to the centre on September 11 because there was a “blockage of people”.

When they got there around noon, he saw around 40 people singing, dancing and holding placards.

“We saw that some of the protesters were forming a human chain to prevent people from entering or leaving the civic centre.”

He said they used padlocks and chains to secure themselves to the railings and refused to leave after two warnings.

Pietersen was testifying on the first day of the trial of 21 Social Justice Coalition members charged with contravening the Regulations of Gatherings Act (RGA).

They admitted to convening and attending the gathering but pleaded not guilty on the basis that their actions were not criminal.

They had wanted to speak to mayor Patricia de Lille in person about their frustration at the city's perceived inaction over proper sanitation in informal settlements.

Pietersen said around 12 police officers ended up cutting the chains.

He insisted only those on the chains were arrested and that those standing on the side for support ran away.

The group's lawyer Michael Bishop asked about the group's conduct.

Pietersen replied that they were fully co-operative and that he did not feel threatened in any way.

Bishop put it to him that he was mistaken about the size of the group, who was involved, and the assumption that they were blocking the entrance.

The lawyer said the group could easily lift their chained arms to allow people past.

Pietersen stuck to his version that the chain was impenetrable and that members of the public had been turned away.

It is the group's argument that the RGA does not prohibit a gathering for which no notice has been given.

They would argue that sections of the act were thus inconsistent with the Constitution in that it criminalised a failure to give notice of a gathering.

“The accused will argue that criminalising peaceful, unarmed gatherings merely because no notice was given is unconstitutional,” their affidavit read.

The trial continues.