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Court hears John Knight 'was defending himself' during scuffle with KCC's Bryan Sweetland in Gravesham council deputy leader assault trial

Councillors clashed at a disability awareness event resulting in one of them falling backwards and landing in an empty wheelchair.

KCC's Bryan Sweetland appeared "shocked" after the confrontation with Gravesham council's deputy leader John Knight ahead of Gravesham Access Group's Disability Awareness Day meet up in May.

Medway Magistrates' Court heard the altercation was the culmination of months of simmering tension within the local Conservative association, with Mr Sweetland repeatedly branding Knight a "coward" and "corrupt".

Cllr John Knight has denied assaulting Cllr Bryan Sweetland
Cllr John Knight has denied assaulting Cllr Bryan Sweetland

Knight, who was charged with assault following the incident, told the court he was walking through Parrock Street car park, Gravesend, with fellow councillor and former mayor Harold Craske when he heard Mr Sweetland say: "Knight, you're a coward."

He told him he didn't want to speak to him and, when Mr Sweetland repeated the jibe, added he was taking it further.

"Bryan then got incredibly close to me with his nose almost touching mine and said 'you take it forward you'll see where it gets you'," he told the court.

Sixty-five-year-old former prison officer Knight, who has mobility issues which he said made it very difficult for him to move away, then raised his arms while holding the clip board in order to open up space between the pair.

Using the clip board to lift up Mr Sweetland's head under his chin, he said, was a recognised personal protection technique.

"I'm a very calm, patient person," he told the court, adding that during 33 years in the prison service, which had seen him work with the likes of Britain's most dangerous man Charles Bronson, he had never lost his temper.

The alleged assault took place in front of about 15 people, including police officers.

'Bryan told me I had 'dissed him', whatever that means and said he didn't expect me to be corrupt because of my previous job,' — Cllr John Knight

Nicholas White, who witnessed part of the fracas, said he saw Mr Sweetland stumbling backwards with Knight's hand on his chest.

He said if it hadn't been for a woman from the Kent Association for the Blind nudging Mr Sweetland as he fell he would have probably ended up on the floor.

Mr White said: "Mr Sweetland looked very shocked, he was not doing anything, he was aghast as to what this guy was doing.

"You could see Mr Knight's fingers going at Mr Sweetland's throat. He then squeezed for about 10 seconds.

"He then stopped, stepped back and said 'I was tripped' or words to that effect."

But Tom Dunn, defending, suggested Mr White's version of events had been influenced by Mr Sweetland telling him in the immediate aftermath that he had been strangled.

"I may have glasses but I'm not blind," replied Mr White.

After the incident Knight, of Downs Road, Istead Rise, was taken to a police station where he spent 14 hours before being charged.

He has since been suspended from his role as deputy leader.

Knight became a councillor in 2015 after being approached by Mr Sweetland, also from Istead Rise.

But in January, he told the court, "Mr Sweetland's behaviour changed and he began challenging people he didn't agree with".

He said a meeting was held to discuss allegations of bullying against Mr Sweetland.

Mr Sweetland got his hands on a transcript and began confronting various councillors.

He added: "Bryan told me I had 'dissed him', whatever that means and said he didn't expect me to be corrupt because of my previous job".

Mr Sweetland's allegations about him being 'on the take' from an unknown construction company stemmed, Knight suggested, from issues Mr Sweetland had with current council leader David Turner.

"There were plans to build on a farm just down from where Bryan lives," he told the court, adding he felt he was 'collateral damage'.

Just before the alleged assault Knight had found out his application to stand in next May's election had not been received by Gravesham Conservative Association.

Cllr Bryan Sweetland allegedly called John Knight a coward before the incident
Cllr Bryan Sweetland allegedly called John Knight a coward before the incident

He questioned how this had happened and how Mr Sweetland had been told about it before him.

In the moments before the alleged assault Knight had been asking Mr Craske to act as his 'McKenzie friend' — someone who assists a litigant in court proceedings — as he took the matter and the bullying claims against Mr Sweetland further.

Since May there has been a schism in the Conservative group, with 12 councillors, including Knight, Mr Turner and Mr Craske, defecting to the newly former Gravesham Independent Conservatives.

GIC and the Tories now have the same number of councillors. Labour has 20.

Mr Sweetland is currently not on the council but during evidence Knight said he is aware of his intention to return.

Knight denies one count of assault. The trial will resume on January 11.

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