The Guardian view on the Stansted 15: a sledgehammer prosecution | Editorial

The activists who blocked a deportation flight from departing were charged under legislation introduced to counter terrorist threats. Their case sets a chilling precedent

The case of the 15 activists convicted on Monday over a non-violent protest which stopped a deportation flight from leaving Stansted airport should not only worry all those who care about the rights of those threatened with removal. It should alarm anyone who cares about the right to protest. The disproportionate charge will have a chilling effect. Amnesty has called this “a crushing blow for human rights in the UK”; Liberty said it was a “malicious attack” on the right to protest.

There is no dispute that the members of the End Deportation group cut through a fence and secured themselves around a plane chartered to remove undocumented immigrants to Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone. The question was whether their reasons for doing so constituted a defence (the judge said not), and whether the charge was appropriate. The first issue is a matter of law. The second is also one of common sense. They were initially accused of aggravated trespass, the offence used in previous airport protest cases. The Crown Prosecution Service then upgraded this to “intentional disruption of services at an aerodrome” by means of “a device, substance or weapon”.

This obscure-sounding charge was introduced in response to the Lockerbie bombing and carries a correspondingly harsh maximum penalty: life imprisonment. It has been used just once before, 17 years ago, in the case of a pilot who deliberately flew his helicopter at Coventry airport’s control tower.

The CPS maintains that the group “placed themselves, the flight crew, airport personnel and police at serious risk of injury or even death”. Devices in this instance meant not explosives but “industrial bolt cutters, chains, expanding foam, scaffolding poles and lock box devices”. The prosecution also argued that the protesters created a kind of secondary endangerment; by diverting police attention, it made other parts of Stansted more vulnerable to any potential terrorist attack.

The protesters were highlighting a harsh and punitive system with which many are rightly and increasingly ill at ease. In June this year, Virgin airlines said it would no longer help deportations. Relying on charter flights (in several cases from an RAF base, following the Stansted protest) only veils the issue. Nearly half of immigration decisions are overturned on appeal; the Home Office loses 75% of its appeals against immigration rulings. Two people on the Stansted flight have been saved from wrongful deportation, having now been granted the right to remain; nine more remain in this country while their cases are considered. The best response to such protests would be to overhaul the cruel immigration regime, ensuring a fair and humane system.

These charges were a grave mistake. The attorney general should never have approved them. Attention now turns to the dangers of heavy sentences. These would compound the unfairness. But the underlying injustice should be fully resolved on appeal.

Contributor

Editorial

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Stansted 15 activists should be supported, not punished | Letters
Letters: Supporters including Diane Abbott, Phillip Pullman, Emma Thompson and Caroline Lucas write in defence of the 15 human rights activists who acted to stop a ‘brutal, secretive and barely legal deportation flight’ last year

Letters

11, Dec, 2018 @4:45 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on #EndSars and the crackdown: Nigerians deserve better | Editorial
Editorial: The shooting of peaceful protestors has highlighted the injustice and state brutality that have fuelled this movement

Editorial

21, Oct, 2020 @6:59 PM

Article image
Grief and pride of the Stansted 15’s parents | Letters
Letters: Parents of the protesters convicted this week say that the group has upheld the values of social justice and human rights on behalf of us all

Letters

13, Dec, 2018 @4:43 PM

Article image
The Stansted protesters saved me from wrongful deportation. They are heroes | Anonymous
The ‘Stansted 15’ face jail for stopping my flight from taking off. But without them, I’d have missed my daughter’s birth

Anonymous

10, Dec, 2018 @1:55 PM

Article image
Stansted runway closed after anti-deportation protesters block flight
Eight activists attempt to stop charter flight scheduled to carry eight deportees to Nigeria and Ghana

Chris Johnston

28, Mar, 2017 @10:44 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Heathrow expansion: stop it to save the planet | Editorial
Editorial: Aviation efficiency gains and innovation will not be enough to limit emissions growth. Demand for air travel needs to be damped

Editorial

23, Jun, 2019 @5:37 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Heathrow expansion: better never than so late | Editorial
Editorial: A third runway at Heathrow airport is ultimately indefensible on environmental grounds

Editorial

05, Jun, 2018 @5:07 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on a defeat for Heathrow’s third runway: a welcome precedent | Editorial
Editorial: A court ruling that airport expansion plans are illegal could be the shock that the system needs

Editorial

27, Feb, 2020 @6:54 PM

Article image
The Stansted 15 stood up for justice. And now I stand up for them | Letter from Catherine West MP
Letter: Activists who peacefully seek to defend people’s right of access to justice should not be facing the prospect of life imprisonment under legislation designed to tackle terrorism, writes the Labour MP Catherine West

Letters

11, Jan, 2019 @4:49 PM

Article image
Why are all the motherhood memoirs so white? | Huma Qureshi
It’s a naturally inclusive experience, yet books on the subject by women of colour are hard to find, says the writer Huma Qureshi

Huma Qureshi

03, Sep, 2019 @2:23 PM