It was mid-afternoon on November 5 by the time Benjamin Smoke took the witness stand in a courthouse in Chelmsford, a small city about 30 miles northeast of London that voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union in 2016. Smoke is 27 — a freelance journalist and activist with short, black hair, a selection of silver rings in his ears and nose, and no previous convictions. He wore a gray suit, although most of it was hidden behind the stand where he stood that afternoon, answering questions from his lawyer that aimed to explain, and justify, the actions that had led him to being charged with a terrorism-related offense.
On the night of March 28, 2017, Smoke and 14 other activists, now known as the Stansted 15, entered Stansted Airport, an international airport northeast of London, accompanied by two journalists. After cutting a hole in the airport’s perimeter fence, they made their way toward a Titan Airways Boeing 767. CCTV footage shows them approaching in two well-organized groups: Smoke’s group headed to the front of the aircraft, intending to lock themselves around it with double-layered pipes, and the other aimed for the plane’s left wing, constructing a two-meter pyramid structure out of scaffolding poles and then locking themselves to it. One person perched atop the structure, making it dangerous for security personnel to remove it.
They remained there, them and the plane immobile on the tarmac, until 8 a.m. the next morning, rain intermittently dampening them for 10 hours. According to some reports, the airport runway was shut down for about an hour and 20 minutes, and incoming flights were rerouted. Police officers arrived quickly, but it took a while for them to cut everyone out, sawing through the pipes securing the protesters’ arms to one another. By that point, it was obvious that the plane was not going anywhere. They had achieved their goal.
Smoke is a founding member of Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants, a group created in 2015 to stand in solidarity with migrant communities in the U.K., and also part of End Deportations, a group campaigning to end deportations that originally formed around the Stansted action. They chose to focus on one particular aspect of the U.K.’s deportation system: charter flights. While some migrants and asylum-seekers are deported on commercial flights alongside passengers traveling for business or pleasure, others are deported via private flights chartered by the Home Office, the government department responsible for immigration, security, and law and order. The Titan plane around which the Stansted 15 locked themselves in March 2017 was one of the latter.
The activists believed that at least three people scheduled to be on that particular charter flight, bound for Nigeria and Ghana, were at risk of serious harm or even death upon return to their countries of origin. Smoke had heard of one woman, an out lesbian, who had fled an abusive marriage in Nigeria and whose ex-husband had said he would kill her upon her return. The British government had rejected her asylum application. Standing in the witness box, his voice occasionally growing quiet until his lawyer would remind him to speak loudly and slowly, Smoke explained that he had acted with an intent not to do harm but to protect people from the harm that he thought would result from deportation on the charter flight.
Mystery surrounds deportation charter flights. They have been known to leave in the early hours before sunrise, sometimes from military bases instead of airports, and deportees, security escorts, and a few health care personnel are often the only people onboard. According to a report by Corporate Watch, a nonprofit research cooperative, the U.K. government began using charter flights for deportations in 2001.
The Home Office does not routinely publish data about its use of charter flights. However, Freedom of Information requests have revealed that the Home Office chartered 93 deportation flights from January 2016 through May 2018, including the flight grounded by the Stansted 15. Most of these flights went to Pakistan, Albania, Nigeria, and Ghana, although a few also flew to Germany, France, and Bulgaria. Some carried over 50 deportees; most had less than 20 passengers being deported because of a criminal conviction. These destinations have shifted over time as the population of asylum-seekers has changed: Charter deportation flights in 2014 also frequented Afghanistan and Kosovo.
The Stansted 15, along with many others who research or campaign around deportation, take issue with numerous aspects of deportation charter flights, starting with the way in which migrants and asylum-seekers are notified of them.
“It’s a weird numbers game where the government needs to fill seats on this plane to make it economically viable,” says Morten Thaysen, one of the co-founders of Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants. There will often be “raids in the weeks leading up to the flight,” according to Thaysen. “People [are] being taken from marketplaces, workplaces, their home, and put in detention centers — these kind of immigration prisons — and then taken in the middle of the night on these secret flights where there are no witnesses. So it’s the brutality of how they function.”
“People are being taken in the middle of the night on these secret flights.”
Some people, activists also argue, are not notified of their impending deportation with enough time to appeal the decision. “We see so many people on these flights whose cases haven’t been properly finished, haven’t had their cases heard properly,” says Thaysen. The government is meant to provide those being deported on charter flights with notice of either 72 hours or five working days, depending on if the person is seeking a court injunction to defer their removal.
According to Matthew J. Gibney, director of the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, the problem goes beyond short notice. Some groups of asylum-seekers, including men from Ghana and Nigeria, are not allowed to appeal their removal orders until they have been deported back to their country of origin. “There’s no appeal right for people from these various countries,” Gibney explains. Plus, he adds, “the Home Office is in charge of fulfilling the government’s demand that the number of people immigrating to the country is reduced, and it’s also in charge of granting asylum. So that looks a bit like a kind of conflict of interest, in some respects.”
Lacking the right to appeal can be a major disadvantage. Between April 2017 and March 2018, more than one-third of appeals that went to court resulted in the Home Office’s initial decision being overturned, according to The Guardian. It is, Gibney says, “a very, very large number that are successful on appeal to an independent body, and it does make you wonder about the quality of decision-making within the Home Office. I would certainly be pretty scared if I had to apply to the Home Office, and I was actually facing persecution because I don’t necessarily think their judgments are always sound.”
Once deportees are detained and the night of their flight arrives, they are driven by bus to an airport or military base and put on the plane. Here, too, many take issue with the process. In January 2018, the chief inspector of prisons, an independent inspector who reports on the treatment of those in prison, observed a deportation charter flight to France, Austria, and Bulgaria. His report highlights the use of “excessive” restraint on the passengers and describes the presence of 80 security escorts to accompany 23 deportees — more than three escorts per person. All but one of the 23 were restrained for the duration of the flight by a waist belt that restricted arm movement. The deportees were calm and, wrote the inspector, “restraints in these cases were not necessary, reasonable or proportionate.” (The Home Office declined to respond to any questions about its use of charter flights because the Stansted 15 trial is ongoing.)
It was these conditions that, Smoke and the other 14 believed, awaited the migrants and asylum-seekers who were scheduled to be deported on March 28, 2017, when they locked themselves together to keep that plane in place.
The consequences of the Stansted 15’s actions that night have been far greater than anyone anticipated. The activists are now coming to the end of a six-week trial in Chelmsford; soon the 12-person jury will reach a verdict. Originally charged with aggravated trespass — a charge they accept — the Stansted 15 have since additionally been charged with intentional disruption of services at an aerodrome. This charge falls under the “Endangering safety at aerodromes” section of the U.K.’s Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990, a law intended to fight terrorism. The potential lifetime sentence accompanying this charge, as well as the fact that the attorney general is required to approve its use on a case-by-case basis, makes clear its severity.
There is little precedent for fighting a charge from the Aviation and Maritime Security Act — in 28 years, it has been used very rarely. Amnesty International has been observing the Stansted 15 trial, concerned that this charge “may have been brought to discourage other activists from taking non-violent direct action in defence of human rights.” Kate Allen, Amnesty International’s U.K. director, wrote, “We’re concerned the authorities are using a sledgehammer to crack a nut with this case.”
“We’re concerned the authorities are using a sledgehammer to crack a nut with this case.”
That a charge intended as a counterterrorism measure is being used against nonviolent protesters has shocked many. There remains debate about what Parliament truly intended when it passed the act back in 1990 and if nonviolent action falls within its scope. The transcript of a January 1990 parliamentary discussion of the bill offers some hints. In it, Cecil Parkinson, then secretary of state for transport, explains, “The protocol commits us to making it an offence under our law to carry out armed attacks at international airports and to cause damage or disruption at such airports.” He later says that the act is “to be an effective means of countering terrorism.”
John Prescott, then a member of Parliament for Hull East, described the bill as an attempt to “make it more difficult for cowardly acts of terrorism to occur or for bombs to be planted on aircraft and planes — devices like those which have already killed hundreds of innocent passengers.”
Here, then, it becomes clear why the activists’ intent to prevent harm, rather do harm, matters. In court on November 5, the defense lawyer tried to establish that Smoke had acted because he thought people were in genuine peril and that he had taken into consideration the safety of everyone involved. Safety, Smoke emphasized, had been “integral to every single conversation that was going on at the time.” Was he intending to put himself in danger? “Absolutely not.” Anybody else in danger? “No, quite the opposite.”
When Tony Badenoch, speaking for the prosecution, began interrogating Smoke, the line of questioning shifted. Now, the focus was on establishing that he cares about fairness, does not wish for harm to come to his fellow human beings, and accepts that we all have to live in accordance with the rule of law. To do otherwise, Badenoch suggested, would be anarchy. A woman in the public gallery let out a chuckle; Smoke hesitated before affirming the lawyer’s statement. What Badenoch was getting to was the idea that it would create risks if everyone made up their own rules. Smoke and the rest of the Stansted 15, he said, had self-selected their own rules.
That morning, hours before Smoke began giving evidence in court, about 100 people had gathered in front of the Chelmsford courthouse with signs reading, “Deportation flights kill,” and “The ONLY people in danger were on the plane.” Ewa Jasiewicz, a member of End Deportations who had come from Manchester, was leading the rally. “What our friends have tried to do is shine a light on this brutal process, and they’ve tried to stop it at the point of the actual deportation,” she explained. “They’d exhausted all other means to intervene in this process. They’re trying to prevent greater crime from taking place, which is that of people being deported back to danger, back to death, back to violence.”
The long trial has led to both an outpouring of support for the defendants and outrage over the severity of their charges, bringing together people from anti-war, anti-racist, and climate justice movements. And despite what the city’s pro-Brexit vote may imply, the activists have also been met with solidarity in Chelmsford, where locals have housed them for the duration of the trial. Sabina Nussey and her daughter, Helena, have been housing two defendants. At the rally, Sabina’s coat bore a “We demand a people’s vote” button, a reference to the campaign to hold another Brexit referendum. “They are both the same age as my children,” explained Sabina of the activists staying with her family. “I think they stood up and did something and the least we can do is try and give them the support.”
She wasn’t alone in that feeling: Later that day, the bishop of Chelmsford appeared in the courtroom to show his support. Last spring, about 50 prominent writers and activists, including feminist activist Gloria Steinem and Intercept columnist Naomi Klein, published a letter calling for the charges to be dropped and for the government to stop chartering deportation flights.
Raising awareness of the government’s use of deportation charter flights — a practice that was not widely known prior to the Stansted 15 — has been a welcome side effect of the trial and the charges facing the defendants. But that is just one of the ways in which the Stansted 15’s action made an impact: It did, in fact, stop some of the people meant to be on the Titan Airways flight from being deported. According to a Freedom of Information request, as of July this year, 11 people scheduled for the March 28, 2017 flight remained in the U.K.
Arising from this trial are two debates: that of criminalizing nonviolent protest and that of the legality, and ethics, of deportation charter flights. The jury will decide on the former in a matter of days; the latter may remain open after the case reaches its close. Activists, however, see that debate as having a clear winner. “Their action resulted in 11 people still being here in the U.K. with their friends and family,” implored Jasiewicz, standing outside the courthouse that morning. “So it’s an act of human solidarity and defense and resistance to an increasingly brutal border regime.” She told me that previous organizing against deportations on commercial flights by pressuring airlines had seen some success — and, she believes, had resulted in an increase in charter flights. “We’re trying to intervene in this. We think it’s our human duty to do that and the state doesn’t like it.”