The charges against 15 anti-deportation activists in the “Stansted 15” case are a very worrying development.
Punishing a group of peaceful protesters who took non-violent direct action in defence of human rights with a terrorism-related offence - “endangering safety at aerodromes” - carrying a maximum life imprisonment sentence is uncharted territory for British justice.
It throws into question this country’s respect for the right of every individual to peacefully protest.
And it even suggests that the UK authorities are now inclined to crack down on human rights defenders in ways sadly familiar to us in many countries overseas, but much more rarely seen here.
Consider the facts. One night in March last year, 15 human rights defenders carried out a carefully-planned protest action designed to prevent what they believed was the unlawful removal of 60 people on a charter flight to Ghana and Nigeria. They cut a small hole in the perimeter fence of Stansted Airport, and, locating the plane in question, locked themselves to the nose-wheel thus preventing its departure. Having achieved their immediate aim, they were arrested.
One of the results of delaying the deportation was that ten of the deportees were given the time necessary for asylum claims, while at least one other person had since secured permission to stay in the country.
But what happened next is the crux of the matter. Having originally been charged with aggravated trespass, four months later the 15 were informed they were now facing the very serious terrorism-related charge.
Why this decision was taken, we do not know. As a result, what could have been dealt with in a short procedure before a magistrate’s court instead went to a crown court in a full nine-week trial. A sledge-hammer has been used to smash a nut.
Not everyone will agree with the Stansted 15’s actions. But most people will see they acted according to their conscientious beliefs. Throughout the trial, information was presented to demonstrate the care taken by the 15 to avoid causing harm to anyone. It’s abundantly clear they acted in a non-violent manner simply to defend human rights. It is also abundantly clear they should never have been charged with an offence carrying a potential life sentence.
Why did they do it? They were acting out of conscience. Out of a concern, as they saw it, that people were at risk of suffering serious human rights violations if deported from Stansted.
As the Windrush scandal has so clearly demonstrated, the Home Office has repeatedly harmed and otherwise callously mistreated many people in this country. It has misused and abused deportation powers against those with rights to British citizenship, against those entitled to asylum, and against those with other good claims to live in the UK. Here, 15 people were doing something they saw as a means to partly redress the balance. Actions designed to defend the rights of a powerless - and sometimes maligned - group.
Around the world, those who seek to defend human rights are currently under sustained pressure. In the Gulf (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE) human rights defenders have been virtually silenced. Closer to home, they’re under attack in Turkey, Hungary, France and elsewhere in Europe.
And now in Essex.
Ahead of the Stansted 15’s trial, Amnesty wrote to the Director of the Crown Prosecution Service and the Attorney General calling for the excessive terrorism-related charge to be dropped. Our plea was not acted on.
We are now in uncharted waters. The conviction of peaceful protesters on this excessive charge will send shivers down the spine of anyone who cares about the right to protest in our country.
It’s deeply disturbing that protesters who took non-violent direct action and at no time placed anyone else in danger (even if they caused some level of disruption) should be facing possible life sentences.
The UK should not be targeting human rights defenders in this way. We should stand in solidarity with the Stansted 15. All our freedoms have just been eroded.