In Depth

Who are the Stansted 15?

The protesters have been found guilty of terrorism offences

Fifteen protesters who blocked a government deportation flight could be facing life imprisonment after being found guilty of a terrorism offence.

The so-called Stansted 15, as they have come to be known, cut through a perimeter fence at Stansted Airport on 28 March 2017 and  secured themselves around the nose wheel and wing of a plane due to transport people for repatriation to Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone.

A total of 11 of the passengers who were to be deported “have now been given legal status in the UK”, reports Sky News.

Stansted 15 member Ruth Potts told the broadcaster that this proves that the protesters’ actions were justified and had prevented wrongful, and in some cases illegal, deportations.

“To us, this is a window into the reality of people being deported unfairly, and into circumstances where their lives and liberty are at risk,” she said.

Nevertheless, the 15 protesters were yesterday found guilty of endangering the safety of the airport, in a prosecution that has been condemned by human rights groups.

The verdict “is a particularly cold blast in the increasingly chill wind blowing against public dissent in the UK”, write university lecturers Steven Cammiss, Brian Doherty and Graeme Hayes, who attended the trial, in an article for the New Statesman.

What did the Stansted 15 do?

After cutting through the fence and accessing the runway, four of the campaigners locked themselves together around the Titan Airways Boeing 767’s nosewheel. The others erected a tripod behind the portside wing, and chained themselves around the plane, as the aircraft waited on the asphalt at the airport in Essex.

Police arrived quickly but it took ten hours for a specialist dispersal team to release all the protesters. The airport authorities closed the runway for around 80 minutes, diverting 23 flights. The Titan Airways flight was cancelled.

At the time, the UK threat level in relation to international terrorism was classed as “severe”, notes the London Evening Standard. The prosecution pointed out that the number of armed officers available to protect passengers in the terminal was reduced as a result of the Stansted 15’s actions.

Who are the Stansted 15?

All of the defendants are members of the End Deportations protest group, which describes itself as “a campaign to stop the brutal, secretive and barely legal practice of deporting large groups of people using charter flights”.

The defendants are aged between 27 and 44, and include a college lecturer and freelance journalist. Twelve of them list addresses in north London, while the other three are from Brighton, Bristol and Reading.  

What were the charges against them?

After a nine-week trial and nearly three days of deliberations, the jury at Chelmsford Crown Court found the defendants guilty of intentional disruption of services at an aerodrome, under the 1990 Aviation and Maritime Security Act, “a law passed in response to the 1988 Lockerbie bombing”, says The Guardian.

The verdict was delivered after Judge Christopher Morgan “told the jury to disregard all evidence put forward by the defendants to support the defence that they acted to stop human rights abuses”, adds the newspaper. Morgan instead instructed jurors to only consider whether there was a “real and material” risk to the airport.

The maximum penalty for the charge is life imprisonment. This “reflects the origin of this Act as legislation on terrorism”, say Cammiss, Doherty and Hayes.

The three academics argue that it is curious that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) pressed for terrorism offences, with defendants in previous incidents of direct action at airports “charged with and convicted of aggravated trespass, and given non-custodial sentences”.

And the reaction?

Amnesty International’s UK director Kate Allen described the verdicts as a “crushing blow for human rights in the UK”.

In interviews with The Guardian, Stansted 15 members Alistair Tamlit and Ben Smoke spoke of their dismay but insisted that their actions had been justified by the “brutal” and “racist” deportation policy against which they were protesting.

“We were charged with endangering life but we took the actions at Stansted to try to protect life. That point needs to keep on being put into the spotlight,” said Smoke.

Smoke added: “The fact that we were found guilty of this has huge ramifications on the ability of people to engage in what is a very long tradition of direct action in this country. It is part of the contract of our democracy.”

But Judith Reed, of the CPS, insisted: “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.

“The CPS worked with the police to build a strong case which reflected the criminality of the defendant’s actions, regardless of their motivation.”

End Deportations have said they will be appealing the court's verdict, in a post on a crowdfunding site set up to help pay for the group’s legal costs. 

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