Stansted15: ‘To be found guilty of a terror-related charge is devastating’

On Human Rights Day, protesters were charged with terror-related offences for ‘endangering an airport’ after a nine-week trial. Lydia Noon reports.

A Stansted15 protestor pictured chained to an airport runway. Credit: End Deportations

Today is Human Rights Day and fifteen migrant rights campaigners, dubbed the Stansted15, have just been found guilty of a terror-related charge by a jury.

After a nine-week trial at Chelmsford Crown Court for preventing a chartered immigration removal flight from taking off on 28 March last year, the protesters were convicted of putting the safety of Stansted airport and passengers at risk.

‘To be found guilty of a terror-related charge for a peaceful protest is devastating for us, and profoundly disturbing for democracy in this country', said Melanie Strickland, one of the defendants.

‘It’s the Home Office’s brutal, secretive and barely legal practice of mass deportation flights that is putting people in danger.It’s the Home Office that should have been in the dock, not us.’

The chartered Titan airways flight was due to deport 60 people to Nigeria and Ghana. Originally charged with ‘aggravated trespass’, the second and more serious charge of ‘endangering an airport’ was added in July 2017 at the request of the Crown Prosecution Service.

It is the first time that activists were charged with this terror-related offence, the conviction carries the maximum sentence of life in prison. The 15 will be sentenced on 4 February 2019.

The verdict comes after three anti-fracking protesters were jailed in Preston, in September, for causing a public nuisance, a draconian sentence quashed two weeks later on appeal.

Detained Voices

The trial began in March but was adjourned until 1 October and ended on 5 December. The protesters, aged 27 to 44, included an academic, a piano teacher, an artist and a journalist. Many of the 15 worked or volunteered for campaigning organisations. One of the defendants, Emma Hughes, was eight months pregnant at the time the verdict was heard.

The prosecution case rested on whether the actions of the group were unsafe and a threat to the public at Stansted airport. As such, the cross examination focused on the preparation and execution of the action that involved walking on to the tarmac of the airport, putting up two tripods and using ‘lock-boxes’ (that the prosecution called devices) to secure themselves to each other and to the bottom of one of the tripods. The police took several hours to cut the protesters out, leading to the delay and ultimately the cancellation of the deportation flight.

The defence argued that the actions of the 15 did not endanger the airport: - citing the absence of a serious incident report by Air Traffic Control, who told the court that they did not consider the blocking of the charter flight to be an ‘incursion of the runway’.

Airside witnesses initially indicated to police that they knew protesters (as opposed to terrorists) had arrived on the tarmac. Campaigners had made their demonstration and their intent visible by wearing pink hats, using hi-vis jackets, displaying a large ‘no-one is illegal’ banner and singing songs.

Seven defendants took to the witness box explaining why they resorted to civil disobedience. Many had been involved for a number of years in campaigning against deportations, including attending demonstrations outside detention centres and the Home Office and supporting people going through the asylum process.

Many voiced their frustration that these actions hadn’t resulted in change.When they read the stories of three people on the Detained Voices website that were due to be deported on 28 March, the protesters said they felt compelled to try to block the flight to protect lives.

When pressed by the prosecution about why he hadn’t told the police about his concerns for the deportees, Nicholas Sigsworth, originally from Yorkshire, said that people more qualified than him had already been communicating with the police and Home Office before the night of 28 March, to no avail.

In the final days of the trial, Judge Christopher Morgan told the jury to disregard all evidence put forward by the defendants to support their actions, instructing them only to consider whether there was a ‘real and material’ risk to the airport.

Morgan then gave a two-day summing up of the trial during which he said the defendants entry to a restricted area could be considered inherently risky. In a tense exchange without the jury present, the defence team called on the jury to be discharged, stating that the judge’s comments amounted to a direction to convict. Morgan dismissed this submission and said that the defence could ‘take it to another court’.

Last resort

Thousands of people every year are deported on specially chartered night flights to countries such as Pakistan, Ghana, Nigeria, Kosovo and Albania. It costs £5,200 per person to carry out deportations in this way in 2015, according to former Minister for Immigration James Brokenshire. Outsourcing firm Mitie won the government contract in May for providing security guards for these flights, and say that this contract with the Home Office is worth £52 million a year.

Hughes, seven months pregnant when she gave evidence, described occasions where she had called commercial airlines and asked them to refuse to fly people. As Titan airlines is a private charter flight, she explained, this wouldn’t have worked. Direct action was the last resort.

Hughes said that some people were still in the middle of the asylum process when they were deported: ‘The aim is to fill seats [on charter planes] and the way that this is done is to snatch people at routine check-ins with the Home Office’.

‘Charter flights have all the problems that there are on commercial flights but so much worse: charter flights are secretive, they always leave in the middle of the night and no-one gets to see what’s going on.

‘There are usually two or three guards for every person being deported, people are panicking and they’re being restrained with no-one there to watch it happening.’

Since 2011, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons has been routinely inspecting charter flights and they report that ‘the use of restraints is excessive and routine when it should be exceptional – these restraints affect people’s breathing.’

Heroes, not criminals

A replacement flight took off from Stansted two nights after last year’s direct action with only 23 people on board; 34 people were able to continue their asylum claims. A year and a half later, 11 people are still in the UK and one now has the right to remain.

‘These 15 brave people are heroes, not criminals,’ said the man who successfully appealed his asylum refusal in The Guardian.

‘I will be praying that the Stansted 15 are shown leniency. Without their actions I would have missed my daughter’s birth, and faced the utter injustice of being deported from this country without having my now successful appeal heard. My message to them today is to fight on. Their cause is just, and history will absolve you of the guilt that the system has marked you with.’

In a year where the Conservative government has marked the courage of the suffragettes who fought and won the right to vote a hundred years ago, today’s ruling not only shows the government’s hypocrisy but also that they are as terrified of dissent as ever.