Crimes and misdemeanours

IssueDecember 2015 - January 2016
News by Chris Cole

On 20 October, after two days of evidence and legal argument, a judge in Lincoln magistrates court found four anti-drone protesters (Gary ‘Eagle Spits’ Eagling, Katha Karcher, Penny Walker and myself) guilty of criminal damage.

In January 2015, we entered RAF Waddington in order to disrupt ongoing British drone operations in Iraq and Syria. We knew that our presence would trigger a security alert that would put the base on ‘lockdown’ which (in the words of an RAF witness at our trial) meant that personnel ‘were unable to go about their normal duties bringing the effectiveness of the station to a minimum.’

In our statement for our action, we wrote: ‘We come to RAF Waddington today to say a clear ‘no’ to the growing normalisation and acceptability of drone warfare.... Rather than deploying Reapers, Predators and Avengers we must together deploy Reconciliation, Justice and Love. Let us reject violence, war and drones to enable real peace and real security to flourish.’

We were charged with criminal damage because we cut a hole in the fence in order to gain entry, and court officials and prosecutors attempted to rush the case through the system by setting a trial date to last no more than three hours in May. We successfully argued that more time was needed to put our case and eventually a two-day trial was set for late October.

Civil obedience

All four of us admitted cutting the fence but we argued, under Section 3 of the Criminal Law Act 1967, that we had acted reasonably in the circumstances to prevent the crime of unlawful killing (under both international law and domestic law). We also argued that, under the Criminal Damage Act 1971, we had acted to prevent destruction of property (and life) in Iraq and Syria.

We argued strongly that British drone operations in Syria in particular were unlawful as there has been no UN authorisation nor parliamentary approval for such military action. British drones operated from RAF Waddington are undertaking strikes in Iraq, and are aiding coalition strikes in Syria by contributing intelligence that they gather there. (RAF officers are also embedded with US units undertaking strikes in Syria.)

From credible reports gathered by Airwars, we gave evidence to the court of the number of innocent civilians who have been killed in the air strikes against ISIS. The Airwars report, ‘Cause for Concern’, details some 52 incidents of concern where there is good credible reporting of civilian casualties and it has been confirmed that US-led coalition air strikes have occurred in the area. In these incidents, between approximately 450 and 600 civilians were killed up till 30 June 2015.

We explained that while unquestionably many more civilians had been killed in Iraq and Syria by the terror group ISIS, the deaths of civilians in UK and US airstrikes were our responsibility and did not aid the situation. While some may argue that the strikes are not deliberately aimed at civilians, it is nevertheless perfectly predictable that civilians will be killed in airstrikes.

The judge stated that the defendants had ‘not carried out a piece of mindless vandalism’ and were ‘undoubtedly sincere people with legitimate concerns’. He based his decision on a technical ruling that cutting a fence did not amount to ‘an act of force’ and that we could therefore not rely on the defence of ‘using reasonable force to prevent a crime’.

The judge further stated that we had not brought any objective evidence that strikes had contributed to civilian casualties, even though it had been his decision not to allow our expert witness, Chris Woods of Airwars, to give evidence. Finally the judge also insisted that magistrates’ courts were not the proper tribunal to hear claims of war crimes. The courts, it seems, are interested in certain crimes only.

We were each given a two years’ conditional discharge, ordered to pay £22 each for the cost of the damaged fence, and also to pay £300 court costs each. We are considering the possibility of an appeal.