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DSEi protesters ‘Not Guilty’ – but will the real villains ever face the dock?

Protesters at court

Outside court the five acquitted display a banner that illustrates the need to demonstrate. © Andrew Dey

‘Superglue protesters avoid jail’ declared a headline on ITN last week. As one of the protesters in question, I’m pleased to report that we didn’t only avoid jail. We were acquitted.

The judge declared the five of us – Dan Woodhouse, Chris Wood, Chloe Skinner, James Clayton and me – to be ‘Not Guilty’ of aggravated trespass. Along with others, we had blocked an entrance to the London arms fair last September by kneeling in prayer and singing hymns.

I’m now wishing all the best for the other peaceful protesters, both Christian and otherwise, who will be on trial later this month for their own actions at the London arms fair. The fair, known euphemistically as Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEi), is held every second September in east London.

A significant moment in our trial came when a Ministry of Defence (MoD) policeman gave evidence for the prosecution. I won’t give his name, as he came off rather badly and I don’t want to humiliate him. He was the officer who arrested me and I can honestly say that I couldn’t hope to be arrested by a nicer person. Nonetheless, there was an amusing moment when he testified that while being arrested, I was ‘shouting loudly throughout in a religious manner’. Or as I would call it, ‘praying’.

More importantly, this officer admitted under cross-examination that the police on duty at DSEi had been briefed about possible activity by protesters but been told nothing about illegal behaviour by arms dealers. This despite the fact that on the day we were arrested, two companies were thrown out of the fair for selling illegal torture equipment.

This should hardly have surprised the police: companies selling illegal weaponry had been removed from DSEi on five previous occasions. But each removal has took place only after the issue had been raised in Parliament or the media. None of these companies were removed proactively by the organizers or police.

Furthermore, the dealers in torture equipment and cluster bombs have never been arrested or prosecuted. Only peaceful protesters are arrested at DSEi.

So I was not surprised to hear an MoD police officer testifying that he and his colleagues were not briefed about possible illegality within the arms fair. On the police footage of our arrests shown in court, we can be heard offering to move if the police investigate the arms dealers. The Chief Inspector in charge can be heard refusing to do so. Chloe Skinner testified that one police officer told her that investigating arms dealers was ‘above my pay grade’.

This all adds to the evidence that however decent the motivations of individual police officers, the police are deployed at DSEi for the benefit of the arms dealers rather than the impartial enforcement of the law.

Yet another reminder that the British authorities are in bed with the arms industry.

In the end, the judge declined to rule on whether the presence of torture equipment gave us a ‘reasonable excuse’ not to move. Instead, she acquitted us on the grounds that we had reasonable grounds to expect that the police would give us another warning before arresting us.

I have been asked several times if the trial was stressful. Of course it was, but it was made a lot more bearable by the support and encouragement of hundreds of people. Many of them turned up at court, others offered their prayers or sent messages via email, Twitter, Facebook or post. Two people (separately) wrote poems about us. I hardly feel I deserve all this, but it’s a reminder of the diversity of people who oppose the arms trade.

It was particularly humbling to receive messages of support from Bahrain, where people risk far more than I have done to resist a regime that was invited to the London arms fair to buy weapons. This is a regime that has frequently turned its weapons against its own people.

I am delighted with the verdict. I am even more delighted by the support we have received. But I will feel happier when people who do arms deals with dictatorships on the streets of London are standing in the dock that my friends and I have recently left.

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