The guilty verdict arrived around lunchtime on December 10 — Human Rights Day, which this year marked the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It signaled the end of a nine-week trial and three days of jury deliberations in Chelmsford Crown Court, about 30 miles northeast of London. More than a year and a half after the 15 defendants had locked themselves around a deportation charter flight at London’s Stansted Airport, successfully stopping it from taking off, the defendants were convicted of intentional disruption of services at an aerodrome, a terrorism-related offense with a potential life sentence.
Known as the Stansted 15, the defendants had all pleaded not guilty to the charge, which falls under the United Kingdom’s Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990, an obscure law intended to fight terrorism. The activists were originally charged with aggravated trespass, but that charge was later upgraded to intentional disruption of services at an aerodrome — under the “endangering safety at an aerodrome” section of the act — and seen by many as a disproportionate response to peaceful protest. Now, the guilty verdict has sent a chilling message to those who may wish to follow in the Stansted 15’s footsteps. Amnesty International, which had been observing the trial, tweeted, “The rights and freedoms of all of us are being eroded. The UK should not be targeting human rights defenders in this way.”
In a statement released minutes after the verdict was announced, the defendants wrote, “We are guilty of nothing 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. 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’.”
The Crown Prosecution Service published a press release about the verdict, outlining the disruption to airport operations, such as delayed and rerouted flights, caused by the Stansted 15’s action. Judith Reed, a deputy chief crown prosecutor, stated, “The [Crown Prosecution Service] worked with the police to build a strong case which reflected the criminality of the defendant’s actions, regardless of their motivation.” Tony Badenoch, who represented the prosecution in court, declined to comment.
“We are guilty of nothing more than intervening to prevent harm.”
On March 28, 2017, the 15 activists, members of anti-deportation groups End Deportations and Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants, cut a hole through Stansted Airport’s perimeter fence and climbed through. Once inside airport grounds, they headed toward a Titan Airways Boeing 767 and broke into two groups. One intended to lock themselves around the plane’s front wheel with double-layered pipes; the other, to construct a two-meter pyramid structure out of scaffolding poles under the plane’s left wing and then lock themselves around it.
The plane had been chartered by the Home Office, the government department responsible for immigration, security, and law and order, and was set to fly migrants and asylum-seekers back to Nigeria and Ghana later that night. Instead, it remained in place until the next morning, when police officers managed to remove all of the activists. In grounding the flight, the activists aimed to prevent the deportees from being sent back to places where they faced threats of harm and even death; they also wanted to draw attention to the government’s practice of deporting people via private charter flights, where security personnel often outnumber deportees, there is little notice given to asylum-seekers in advance, and reports tell of excessive restraint used on passengers.
Most of the people scheduled to be on that flight were eventually placed on other flights and deported back to their countries of origin. However, the Stansted 15’s action also allowed additional time for some of the deportees’ asylum applications to be reviewed or for decisions to be appealed. As of this past July, 11 people scheduled for that flight remained in the U.K. According to the activists, two have been found to be victims of human trafficking and at least one has since been granted indefinite leave to remain in the country.
In an anonymous piece written by one of the deportees scheduled for that March 28 flight and published by The Guardian right after the verdict came down, a man explains how the Stansted 15 changed his life, giving him “a chance to appeal to the authorities over my deportation — a case that I won on two separate occasions, following a Home Office counter-appeal.” More importantly, he wrote, it also allowed him to be in the U.K. for the birth of his daughter.
This was precisely what the activists had hoped for when they cut a hole in Stansted’s fence and laid down on the tarmac below the Titan plane. And it was this goal of preventing harm that, they argue, justified their actions, regardless of any laws they may have broken in the process — a defense that Judge Christopher Morgan discarded when instructing the jury on what to consider during his summation on December 4. Instead, he told the jury, the decision hinged solely on whether the defendants had acted “in such a way as to be likely to endanger the safe operation of the aerodrome or the safety of persons at the aerodrome.” Jurors’ personal feelings about the Home Office, immigration policy, and the use of this charge, as well as any sympathy they may have for the defendants, were not to be factors.
Now, the 15 defendants — one of whom is eight months pregnant — remain in a state of limbo until their sentencing hearing, scheduled for February. “It’s disappointing to get this ruling, but I feel it’s not the end for us because we will appeal it,” explained Jyotsna Ram, one of the defendants, speaking to The Intercept a few hours after the verdict was announced. Ram, 33, works for a small organization in London that does research and campaigns around climate change and energy, although, she laughed, “It’s been so long, I’ve forgotten what my life outside of this is like.” She said that, at least in some ways, the verdict did not come as a shock. “This was the wrong charge in the wrong court. So we’re not surprised because everything about this process has been wrong, and we have to fight a bit more.”