After nearly two long years and one very long day, the news is out: the Stansted 15 will not be going to jail. On Wednesday, the 15 arrived at Chelmsford Crown Court with their bags packed for their anticipated prison stints. Given that they were staring down the barrel of a possible life sentence, they were contemplating the worst.
Cause for some celebration then, that none of them will be going to jail? A bullet dodged, a tragedy averted, a happy ending? Well, not really.
This group of human rights defenders remain convicted of a serious terrorism-related offence.
They were tried in relation to their attempt to prevent the deportation of a group of people at Stansted Airport in 2017. Their actions – which at no point harmed anyone – prevented the flight from leaving. Of the 60 individuals due to have been deported, at least two have since been granted permission to remain in the UK, with others still pursuing their claims.
Initially, we should recall, the Stansted 15 were charged with aggravated trespass, a relatively minor charge of the type that has often been used to prosecute people who have undertaken similar protests.
But four months in, this was changed to “endangering safety at aerodromes” – a very serious terrorism-related charge which came onto the books following the Lockerbie bombings – and one which has a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Ahead of the trial last year, Amnesty wrote to the Director of the Crown Prosecution Service and the Attorney General calling for the “endangering safety at aerodromes” charge to be dropped, expressing concern that it was excessive. The Attorney General effectively told us that it was outside his remit, and the CPS said they couldn’t comment as the case was ongoing.
Amnesty’s fear throughout has been that the revised and more extreme charge may even have been brought to discourage other activists from taking non-violent direct action in defence of human rights. It’s deeply troubling to think that these human rights defenders may have been hauled over the coals as an example to others. Yet it wouldn’t be an unusual strategy when looked at from a global perspective.
The way the Stansted 15 have been treated should be a matter of grave concern for anyone who cares about human rights in the UK. This case is a canary in the coalmine and we should be alert for the chilling effect this trial could have on peaceful protest in the UK.
Undoubtedly it will be a huge relief to the 15 and their families that they have been able to return home tonight. But as they point out in their statement – “Whatever the sentences… these terror convictions and the ten-week trial that led to them are an injustice that has profound implications for our lives. The convictions will drastically limit our ability to work, travel and take part in everyday life.”
It’s easy to see how what has happened to them might give pause to others seeking to stand up against perceived injustice.
Throughout this case it’s been clear these are human rights defenders, motivated by conscience and compassion for their fellow humans. The trial of the Stansted 15 should be viewed as a worrying barometer of how we treat – or indeed mistreat - peaceful protest in the UK today. As far as the impact on future activism in the UK goes, the jury is still out.