The Stansted 15, human rights defenders who took peaceful action to prevent the
deportation of a group of people in 2017, faced strong prosecution for almost two years, and only just received their verdict. The activists narrowly avoided a terrorism conviction and consequent jail time for having broken into Stansted Airport and locking themselves to a plane with 60 deportees aboard. The activists were charged with intentional disruption of services at an aerodrome under the 1990 Aviation and Maritime Security Act, an offence which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Fortunately, just last week the verdict was announced and the Stansted 15 were given suspended sentences or community orders. However, the fact that terror laws were used in prosecution is still condemned by Amnesty International, which also worries what impact this could have for the right to protest in the UK in the future.
Judge Christopher Morgan QC emphasized that the Stansted 15 were only spared significant jail time due to their lack of “grievous intent.” However, the discussion of intent comes far too late. When the decision of the initial charge was made, the jury was told to disregard all evidence that supported the defence that the Stansted 15 acted to stop human rights abuses. Judith Reed, of the CPS, focused solely on their actions, insisting that “these people placed themselves, the flight crew, airport personnel and police at serious risk of injury or even death due to their actions on the airfield.” Furthermore, she stated that the CPS and police worked together to prove their actions as criminal, “regardless of their motivation.” Echoing Amnesty International’s condemnation, a United Nations statement was released, saying: “We are concerned about the application of disproportional charges for what appears to be the exercise of the rights to peaceful and nonviolent protest and freedom of expression.”
The Stansted 15 trial was overall handled extremely poorly and in a manner completely contradictory to what it really was: a peaceful protest. In the Stansted 15’s eyes, the deportation was entirely unjust and action had to be taken to ensure the safety of the passengers aboard, who they had strong reason to believe would be in danger upon arrival. End Deportations, a campaign of which all 15 activists are a part, describes the practice of charter flight deportation as brutal, secretive, and barely legal. Alistair Tamlit, one of the activists, says they will continue to campaign “to end charter flights, immigration detention and the hostile environment.” Ultimately they feel they were completely justified in their actions at Stansted, and the support they received from the public during the trial shows they’re not the only ones who want reform. But there is now the risk that such a heavy-handed and frankly biased prosecution of peaceful protesters has set a dangerous precedent, one which may limit people’s confidence in exercising their right to protest in the future.
The protesters, now free from the painful endurance of the trial, can celebrate the fact that of the 60 people aboard the plane they stopped, 11 are still in the country. Two of these were granted official leave to stay in the UK, as the protest gave them time to appeal. This case draws attention to the problems with the UK’s immigration regime, which Luke de Noronha, spokesperson for the End Deportations campaign, describes as grotesque. There have been multiple accounts of cruelty and discrimination enacted by officials against immigrants, which is not only limited to the UK. Amnesty International reported that “the case of the Stansted 15 follows a trend across Europe of people acting for migrants and refugees who have been harassed, intimidated, and criminalized for their acts of solidarity.”
As we applaud the Stansted 15 for their bravery and perseverance during this time, we must also note the significance of what they were fighting against. This case highlights the importance of protecting the right to protest. The use of terror laws in the prosecution of the protesters did not treat the Stansted 15 as the peaceful and non-threatening activists that they are. In the future, peaceful protest must be much better acknowledged as the fundamental human right that it is. The case also sheds light on the struggles that so many immigrants face and the fundamental flaws which exist within our immigration systems. Hopefully the injustices that have happened and continue to exist will be remembered, so that the next time a situation like this arises, it will be handled better.