On Wednesday morning, a group of British activists entered Chelmsford Crown Court, about 30 miles northeast of London, carrying backpacks and tote bags stuffed full. The Stansted 15, as the group has become known, had arrived for a sentencing hearing, and some of them had come prepared to face years in jail. In December, the activists were found guilty of committing a terrorism-related offense after they broke into an airport and blocked the departure of a government-chartered plane that was set to deport migrants and asylum-seekers.
But the group need not have packed their bags. Twelve of the defendants received community orders of 12 months with 100 hours of unpaid work and a 12-month exclusion from Stansted Airport, the London airport where their protest took place. Due to health reasons, one of the 12 received a sentence with 20 days of rehabilitation in place of unpaid work. The other three defendants, who had previous convictions of aggravated trespass, received nine-month prison sentences with suspensions of 18 months, meaning they will not be imprisoned unless they commit another offense within that time. They also received 100-250 hours of unpaid work, varying due to personal circumstances, and the same exclusion as their fellow defendants.
As the sentencing hearing ended, the defendants rose to hug. Relief spread through the public gallery, which was so small that it failed to accommodate the family and friends of all 15 defendants (parents were given priority). Outside, hundreds of supporters gathered. People danced in the street; camerapersons trained their lenses on the doors, anxious to capture the activists’ exit.
The Stansted 15 addressed the crowd with a prepared statement: “These terror convictions and the 10-week trial that led to them are an injustice that has profound implications for our lives. The convictions will drastically limit our ability to work, travel, and take part in everyday life. Yet people seeking asylum in this country face worse than this: They are placed in destitution, and their lives in limbo, by the Home Office’s brutal system every single day.”
The Crown Prosecution Service released a statement saying it never suggested that the defendants were terrorists.
The activists aimed to prevent the deportees from being sent back to places where they faced threats of harm and death.
On March 28, 2017, the 15 defendants — members of the anti-deportation groups End Deportations and Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants, whose ages ranged from 27 to 44 years old — cut a hole through a fence at Stansted Airport and approached a Titan Airways Boeing 767. Splitting into two groups, some locked themselves around the plane’s front wheel, while others constructed a pyramid structure out of scaffolding poles under the plane’s left wing and then locked themselves around it.
The flight had been chartered by the Home Office — the government department responsible for immigration, security, and law and order — and was scheduled to deport migrants and asylum-seekers back to Nigeria and Ghana. Instead, the plane remained immobile until the next morning. In grounding the flight, the activists aimed to prevent the deportees from being sent back to places where they faced threats of harm and death. They also wanted to draw attention to the government’s practice of deporting people using private charter flights, where security personnel often outnumber deportees, there is little notice given to asylum-seekers in advance of their deportation, and reports tell of excessive restraint used on passengers.
Originally accused of aggravated trespass, the charges against the activists were later upgraded to intentional disruption of services at an aerodrome, which falls under the “endangering safety at aerodromes” section of the Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990. Created to fight terrorism, the law comes with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and had never before been used against peaceful protesters. Amnesty International, concerned about the use of a terrorism-related charge against nonviolent activists, observed the 10-week trial. In December, the Stansted 15 were found guilty, the verdict interpreted by many as a sign of the government criminalizing protest.
The hearing made clear the high cost of both the long trial and the conviction. The courtroom heard of loss of job and educational opportunities and of depression suffered by numerous defendants, including Emma Hughes, who had given birth five weeks earlier; of Nathan Clack’s fear of no longer being able to visit his American partner if the conviction were to cause U.S. authorities to refuse him entry; of how Melanie Strickland, in court against medical advice, was hospitalized for a sepsis-related emergency a week prior and was scheduled to have abdominal surgery the next day.
Given the gravity of the charge, a prison-free sentence hardly means a punishment-free future. In fact, their anxieties were well-founded, according to Raj Chada, a partner from Hodge Jones & Allen, who represented all 15 activists. “They may find it difficult to go into the United States or to other countries,” Chada said. “Some of them have very responsible jobs that will require notification to the authorities.”
They are now appealing, although it may be months before the case reaches the Court of Appeals. Their arguments are manifold: that the case should not have proceeded because it was an inappropriate charge; that Judge Christopher Morgan should have permitted the necessity defense, which states that the action was justified because it was done to prevent harm; that Morgan misinterpreted the law; and that he may have been biased in his summing up of the case to the jury.
How this case, and its use of a terrorism-related law against nonviolent activists, will impact the charges brought against activists in the future remains unclear. And yet, as the courtroom’s packed press section and the mass of supporters in the street showed, many are taking note.
“When a country uses draconian terror legislation against people for peaceful protest, snatches others from their homes in dawn raids, incarcerates them without time limit, and forces them onto planes in the middle of the night, due to take them to places where their lives might be at risk, something is very seriously wrong,” said the Stansted 15 in a statement issued on Wednesday. “Every single one of us should be very worried about our democracy and our future.”