"Eventually they said the flight had been cancelled," says a man who is from and had been tortured in Ivory Coast, and who the Home Office had intended to send to Ghana on a deportation flight. "I couldn’t see them, but we heard there was a demonstration. Police were all around. I did not know what was going on."
"When something is wrong, people have to stand up. The problem is with the Home Office – no one checks on them, they have absolute power over people's lives. They do whatever they want. People must stand up against injustice. We are very proud of the protesters. We hope they are treated well. They did the right thing."
When a group of activists burst onto the tarmac at Stansted Airport on a cold March night last year and prevented a secretive deportation flight to Nigeria and Ghana from taking off – the first time campaigners have managed to do so – no one knew they would be facing terrorism-related charges a year later.
The activists, wearing bright pink high-vis jackets, chained to each other with armlocks, lay immobile on the tarmac for over ten hours, unaware of what the consequences would be, but steadfast in the belief that what they were doing was right.
Ahead of their trial, which begins on the 12th of March, the Green Party is calling on the Crown Prosecution Service to drop the charges against protesters who, if found guilty, could face life imprisonment for protesting against the injustice of deportations from the UK.
"These trumped up charges are a disgrace – and are completely out of proportion with what happened," Jonathan Bartley, the co-leader of the Green Party, tells VICE ahead of a speech on Saturday to the party's conference.
Comparing the action taken by the activists to those who took direct action to force female emancipation a century ago, Bartley will say: "[We call] on the government to scrap laws that make criminals of human rights activists. These are the new suffragettes. These are the new history-makers."
Fifteen activists face the charge of endangering an airport – the first time the act has been used against people taking direct action since the law was passed in 1990, following the Lockerbie bombing – as well as aggravated trespass. The authorities appear to want to send a message to other would-be flight saboteurs: don’t you fucking dare.
Chartered night-time deportation flights are a central tenet of the government's "hostile environment" approach to illegal migrants, some of whom have lived in the UK for half a century. In 2016, 1,536 people were expatriated to Albania, Jamaica, Pakistan, Nigeria and Ghana on chartered flights, at an average cost of £5,210 per person.
It is common for detainees to leave the country in waist restraint belts or leg restraints, and in 2010 a man died after being suffocated to death by three G4S guards who were subsequently found not guilty of manslaughter.
Meanwhile, last week it was claimed that Home Office contractors cuffed detained migrants inside a burning coach before they allowed them to leave the vehicle prior to its explosion.
"This government is snatching our friends, neighbours and colleagues from our communities, incarcerating them without a time limit in remote detention centres, before forcing them onto flights in the middle of the night, sometimes to countries where they don’t know anyone and may face persecution or even death," says Zak Suffee from End Deportations, one of the groups that organised the action last March. "Deportation flights are brutal, secretive and barely legal, [yet] this is happening in the UK almost every week."
The Supreme Court found the government's policy of "deport first, appeal later" is unlawful in a ruling last year. In 40 percent of cases, planned removals were cancelled, often due to successful 11th hour legal challenges since many often have active legal claims, a 2015 report found. In other cases, the authorities intended to send detainees to the wrong country.
So-called reserve deportees are also taken to the airport to fill up the places of individuals whose lawyers are successful in making last-minute challenges, a practice described by the Chief Inspector of Prisons as "objectionable", "distressing" and "inhumane". Along with the Home Affairs Committee they have recommended the practice ceases.
Labour went even further following a reported mass deportation to Jamaica last year, when the Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, said that it's time for the "brutal and inhumane" chartered flights to stop. However, that remains unlikely as the government sticks to its hardline immigration policies.
Suffee claims that the use of terror legislation against people who blocked a deportation flight at Stansted is a draconian move by a government scared of dissent: "From the suffragettes, to South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, civil disobedience has long played a crucial role in creating a better world. The misuse of terror law sets a dangerous precedent, one we should all be worried about."
"Today, in Yarl's Wood detention centre, 120 women are in the second week of hunger strike," she adds. "Their bravery has revealed the brutality of detention and deportation. It’s time to end inhumane deportation charter flights."
The flight sabotaged by activists had been due to send 57 people to Nigeria and Ghana, and as a result of the group's action 34 people were given a chance to continue their asylum claims. Many of them had ongoing appeals to stay, and some faced serious harm, even death, had the flight been successful.
A male deportee, who previously survived a prior cancelled deportation flight and had to go through the mental turmoil of another near escape, said: "What do they expect me to do? They are trying to deport me when I don’t have one penny in my pocket. How can I leave my wife in this country?"
A lesbian woman who faced deportation after a failed asylum claim spoke of the danger she expected upon her return to Nigeria: "My ex-husband said he knows I am being deported next week. He is waiting for me. He is planning to kill me."