On December 10, fifteen protestors who prevented a government flight taking off from Stansted airport were found guilty of breaching rarely used anti-terror laws, writes Veronica Fagan. They were originally charged with aggravated trespassing, an offence carrying a maximum three-month custodial sentence. But the attorney general, Jeremy Wright, granted permission to prosecute the group under the 1990 Aviation and Maritime Security Act, for endangering the safety of the airport, an offence that carries a maximum of life imprisonment.
The campaigners will be sentenced on February 4 2019.
Their conviction has massive implications for all of us. It’s part of an increasingly criminalisation of protest movements. Amnesty International’s director Kate Allen commented: “This whole case will send a shiver down the spine of anyone who cares about the right to protest in our country’.
The implications were recognised by the FrackFree Four, three of whom were imprisoned for blockading the fracking site at Preston New Road – and later freed as a result of a significant campaign of support. Anti-fracking campaigners called for solidarity with the Stanstead 15, while the 15 sent a message of solidarity to the demonstration outside the High Court the day of their successful appeal.
The Stanstead 15 acted because they were aware of the realities those the government were trying to deport. They knew for example that one woman’s former husband had threatened to kill her when she arrived in Nigeria, because of her sexuality and that one man had threatened to commit suicide because he had no friends or family in Nigeria.
But those were only the stories they knew. They were not surprised when two of the others the government wanted to put on the plane were subsequently identified as victims of trafficking. Eleven of the sixty threatened with deportation have won the right to live legally in Britain since the protest.
Campaigners were also aware that those put on the plane were at risk of verbal and physical abuse from the security guards accompanying them. Independent observers have witnessed racist and misogynist abuse, and excessive use of force by guards, and that was when there were observers on the plane. This behaviour appears to be the rule, rather than the exception.
There is also serious concern about the use of restraint. Waist restraints that are only supposed to be used in exceptional circumstances appear to be the norm. In 2017, HM Chief Inspectors found that 74 staff used restraints on 22 out of 23 people on a flight to France and Bulgaria, and all 60 people were restrained on a flight to Germany.
These are just some of the reasons why a campaign of support for the Stanstead 15 is so important. There are actions across Britain in solidarity on December 18 – as well as a call for people to come to Chelmsford on February 4 for the sentencing. (Details below)
Join the protests on December 18: in Brighton, Glasgow, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, London – Brixton London –Walthamstow, Manchester, Sheffield, Wolverhampton and York and if you can come to Chelmsford on February 4 for sentencing. And sign the petition here.
Here we reproduce the statement from the campaign issued on the day of the verdict:
The Stansted 15 protesters, who stopped a government deportation flight from taking off in March last year, have today been found guilty of breaching terror laws . After 9 weeks the jury found all fifteen defendants guilty of intentional disruption of services and endangerment at an aerodrome under the 1990 Aviation and Maritime Security Act – a controversial use of terror-related law.
The Stansted 15 were accused by the government of putting the safety of the airport and passengers at risk, a charge rejected by all 15 defendants. The trial followed a peaceful action which stopped a chartered deportation flight from taking off in March 2017. Sentencing will take place on February 4th.
Responding to the verdict in a statement the Stansted 15 said:
“We are guilty of nothing more than intervening to prevent harm. The real crime is the government’s cowardly, inhumane and barely legal deportation flights and the unprecedented use of terror law to crack down on peaceful protest. We must challenge this shocking use of draconian legislation, and continue to demand an immediate end to these secretive deportation charter flights and a full independent public inquiry into the government’s ‘hostile environment’.”
“Justice will not be done until we are exonerated and the Home Office is held to account for the danger it puts people in every single day. It endangers people in dawn raids on their homes, at detention centres and on these brutal flights. The system is out of control. It is unfair, unjust and unlawful and it must be stopped.”
Melanie Strickland, one of the defendants, said:
“To be found guilty of a terror-related charge for a peaceful protest is devastating for us, and profoundly disturbing for democracy in this country. It’s the Home Office’s brutal, secretive and barely legal practice of mass deportation flights that is putting people in danger, and their ‘hostile environment’ policy that is hurting vulnerable people from our communities. It’s the Home Office that should have been in the dock, not us.”
What they were fighting for
A man who was set to be deported on the flight but has since been granted a right to remain in the UK said:
“The Stansted 15 have been found guilty of breaching a barely used terror law. Though the jury were convinced that their actions breached this legislation, there’s no doubt in my mind that these 15 brave people are heroes, not criminals. For me a crime is doing something that is evil, shameful or just wrong – and it’s clear that it is the actions of the Home Office tick all of these boxes – and the Stansted 15 were trying to stop the real crime being committed.
‘As the Stansted 15 face their own purgatory – awaiting sentences in the following weeks – I will be praying that they are shown leniency. Without their actions I would have missed my daughter’s birth, and faced the utter injustice of being deported from this country with having my now successful appeal heard. My message to them today is to fight on. Their cause is just, and history will absolve you of the guilt that the system has marked you with.’
Raj Chada, Partner from Hodge Jones & Allen, who represented all 15 of the defendants said:
“We are deeply disappointed by today’s verdicts. In our view it is inconceivable that our clients were charged under counter terrorism legislation for what was a just protest against deporting asylum seekers. Hodge Jones & Allen previously represented 13 defendants who protested at Heathrow in similar circumstances to the 15 at Stansted, yet they were not charged with this draconian legislation.
We believe this was an abuse of power by the Attorney General and the CPS as they should never have been charged with these offences. The fact is that the actions of these protestors resulted in two people who were about to be wrongfully deported remaining in the UK.”
December 10 2018
To keep in touch see End deportations
Helen Brewer, Lyndsay Burtonshaw, Nathan Clack, Laura Clayson, Mel Evans, Joseph McGahan, Benjamin Smoke, Jyotsna Ram, Nicholas Sigsworth, Alistair Tamlit, Edward Thacker, Emma Hughes, May MacKeith, Ruth Potts and Melanie Stickland were charged with intentional disruption of services at an aerodrome under the 1990 Aviation and Maritime Security Act, a law passed in response to the 1988 Lockerbie bombing that has only been used once before in 28 years. The defendants, aged 27 to 44, all pleaded not guilty to the charge