As PN went to press, the trial was continuing at Chelmsford crown court of the Stansted 15, activists who face years in prison for using lock-ons to ground a charter flight for 10 hours. The 15 prevented the deportation of 60 undocumented immigrants to West Africa on 28 March 2017.
The defence argue that their action was to prevent the human rights abuses that deportation charter flights involve.
The first defendant to give evidence, Benjamin Smoke, described his concerns that charter flights involved the use of force, including sedation and manhandling, as the rule rather than the exception.
He cited the case of Jimmy M’benga (often spelled ‘Mubenga’ in the British press) who died at the hands of guards while being deported on a charter flight in October 2010.
Benjamin Smoke told the court he believed that three people on the flight he helped obstruct would be in danger if the flight was not stopped: a Nigerian lesbian who fled an abusive marriage and whose husband had threatened to kill her if she returned; a Nigerian man who had been in Britain for 18 years whom a military group was waiting to kill on his return (his brother and uncle had been killed); and an ‘overstayer’ (whose whole family was here) who said he’d kill himself if deported to Ghana.
The charter flight stopped was part of a programme of regular secretive night flights which deport thousands of people each year to countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Pakistan and, until recently, Afghanistan. Many deportees, having fled persecution and sought asylum in the UK, risk serious harm, even death, on their return.
All the Stansted 15 have pleaded ‘not guilty’ to the charge of intentionally disrupting services at an aerodrome under the Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990.
This anti-terrorist law, passed in response to the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International, likened the use of the charge to ‘using a sledgehammer to crack a nut’.Amnesty sent representatives to observe the trial, which started on 2 October.
Activists from three groups (End Deportations, Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants, and Plane Stupid) entered Stansted airport at 10pm by cutting through its perimeter fence. The prosecution has shown videos of the action: four protesters lock themselves together around the front landing gear of the aircraft and a second group erect a two-metre tripod from scaffolding poles.
In the moments before police arrived, the activists were able to display their banners, one of which said: ‘No One is Illegal’.
The prosecution stated that the protest led to the shutdown of the airport runway for 80 minutes, with outbound planes delayed and inbound flights diverted to other airports. It took the removal team until 8am the next morning to free the protesters.
The prosecution claimed that the diversion of armed officers from security duties in the terminal building made the airport more vulnerable at a time when the UK terrorism threat level was classed as ‘severe’.
A letter in the Guardian on 17 March 2018, calling for the charges to be dropped, was signed by lord David Ramsbotham, former chief inspector of prisons; Green MP Caroline Lucas; Labour MP David Lammy; actor Emma Thompson; author Philip Pullman, and others.
The Stansted 15 are: Helen Brewer, Lyndsay Burtonshaw, Nathan Clack, Laura Clayson, Mel Evans, Emma Hughes, Joseph McGahan, May McKeith, Ruth Potts, Jyotsna Ram, Nicholas Sigsworth, Benjamin Smoke, Melanie Strickland, Ali Tamlit and Edward Thacker. Apart from two who are 38 and 44, the activists are aged between 27 and 35.
The trial is expected to continue into December.