As I write, the breaking news from a trial in Chelmsford in Essex, north of London, is that 15 non-violent peaceful activists have just been convicted of a terror-related offence, for which they could be jailed for life.
The defendants have just been found guilty of intentional disruption of services at an aerodrome under a British terror law, which was passed in response to the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.
The verdict will send shock-waves across the UK and internationally for the draconian nature by which 15 activists, who acted to prevent the loss of life and highlight the injust British deportation system, have been convicted. The fact that the verdict was passed on human rights day will not be lost on observers.
The trial concerned the grounding of a controversial British government charter deportation flight in March 2017. Back in March that year, the fifteen activists broke through the perimeter fence at one of the UK’s largest airports, Stansted, and stopped the flight from leaving. The plane at the time was in a holding bay, far from the main runway.
In theory, the defendants now face life in prison after the prosecution added additional charges against them just before the trial started. The move to charge them with a draconian and little used piece of terror-related legislation has not surprisingly received widespread condemnation. For example, the UK director of Amnesty International, Kate Allen says: “We’re concerned the authorities are using a sledgehammer to crack a nut with this case.”
The activists took the step to stop the flight from leaving because they believed that many of the people about to be departed faced danger back home. Over the course of the trial, jurors at Chelmsford crown court heard how the Boeing 767, chartered by the British Home Office, was due to send 60 people back to Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone.
Since the action at Stansted, a number of those threatened with deportation have won appeals against the Home Office and been granted a right to remain in the UK. The defendants say they acted to prevent human rights abuses from taking place and have received high-profile political backing from MPs, celebrities, religious leaders and concerned members of the public, many of whom signed a letter in solidarity in March this year.
One of those on trial was Mel Evans, who gave her reasons why she had protested in her closing statement. Mel said: “I lay on that cold, wet tarmac for seven hours because I wanted to help other people. I wanted to protect them from harm. They said they feared for their lives.”
She read the words of one asylum seeker who was due to be deported “My ex-husband said he knows I am being deported next week. He is waiting for me. He is planning to kill me. I don’t want to go on that plane. I can’t go. I am begging.”
Evans added: “We were trying to save her life. We had to do it safely because that’s how we could save her life. The two things are tied together.”
So why am I writing about this on this blog?
Because everything is connected. As already noted, the verdict is on human rights day but it is also during the UN Climate talks taking place in Poland. Last week, at those talks, Sir David Attenborough warned how climate change is “our greatest threat”.
We know that climate change has already displaced millions of people and many more millions will become climate refugees as the earth warms.
For twenty five years, I and many others have been writing about the Niger Delta, at risk from oil and at risk from climate change as sea level rises and the Delta slowly sinks.
You may be burning Niger Delta gas right now in your home. Everything is connected. As Mel said, everything is tied together. As millions become displaced in parts of Africa, they will seek a new home. We cannot ignore the coming climate refugee crisis and what this means for human rights.
As the group Reclaim the Power outlined in a statement of solidarity with the Stansted 15: “As climate change worsens, more and more people will feel the consequent impacts such as flooding, extreme weather, famine and resource conflict. Those seeking asylum will be met by theUK government’s ‘hostile environment’, further persecution and human rights abuses.”
For those challenging the UK Government’s hostile immigration policy or climate change, often non violent direct action is the necessary last resort. As British Green MP Caroline Lucas, said in 2010, “I think there is a role for non-violent direct action when democratic channels have failed.”
There have been worrying signs, in the UK at least, of an increasingly hostile reaction to non violent direct action recently, most notably the jailing of three anti-fracking activists for long custodial sentences. Luckily these were over-turned on appeal.
But the warning signs are there. And that is why anyone fighting for environmental justice, human rights, and social justice should be deeply, deeply concerned over the guilty verdict of the Stansted 15.
In a statement just released by the group, the defendants said: “We are guilty ofnothing more than intervening to prevent harm. The real crime is the government’s cowardly, inhumane and barely legal deportation flights and the unprecedented use of terror law to crack down on peaceful protest.”
They added: “We must challenge this shocking use of draconian legislation, and continue to demand an immediate end to these secretive deportation charter flights and a full independent public inquiry into the government’s ‘hostile environment’.
They continued: “Justice will not be done until we are exonerated and the Home Office is held to accountfor the danger it puts people in every single day. It endangers people in dawn raids on their homes, at detention centres and on these brutal flights. The system is out of control. It is unfair, unjust and unlawful and it must be stopped.”
In response to the verdict, a spokesperson for the arts and enviornmental group, Platform, which has been closely monitoring the case, called the verdict “absolutely outrageous”. They said they were in “shock” at the verdict, but held the defendants “in their hearts”.
Amnesty International also condemned the verdict: Their UK director, Kate Allen said: “This is a crushing blow for human rights in the UK.” She added “It’s deeply disturbing that peaceful protesters who caused disruption but at no time caused harm to anyone, should now be facing a possible lengthy prison sentence. This whole case will send a shiver down the spine of anyone who cares about the right to protest in our country.”
One of the convicted activists, Melanie Strickland, called the verdict “devastating and profoundly disturbing for democracy”.