My Trial as One of the Stansted 15 Taught Me a Sad Lesson About the UK Justice System
Sitting on the runway, wearing an adult nappy, I could never have predicted that things would turn out as they have.
The Stansted 15 outside Chelmsford Crown Court. The author, Ben, is on the left in the scarf. Photo: Chris Bethell
There was silence as we pulled away from the farm. It was the kind of silence that holds you in it, pressing up against you. The 15 of us had spent the day there, running through the action. Over and over again until it was committed to muscle memory. The minibus had been packed up with all of the equipment we'd need, carefully stacked in reverse order, so as to make the process of disembarking as quick and as easy as possible.
We were en route to Stansted airport to blockade a deportation charter flight, due to deport around 60 people to Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone later that night. I'd made the mistake of putting a precautionary nappy on far too early and far too loosely, so sat in my seat, shuffling from side to side, the synthetic frills curling up on themselves and pulling at my leg hair. We were planning to be there for the long run – until the flight was cancelled. The imodium tablet I’d foolishly taken on an empty stomach would ensure there was no chance of me having to lie in my own shit; the nappy was to deal with any urinary requirements that might pop up over the course of the night. I'd also scrawled the number of a solicitor firm on my arm in permanent marker. The rickety lanes we’d started on opened into a winding country road, and finally the silence was broken.
"Shall we read some of the testimonies out loud?" asked someone.
The suggestion was met with a grateful agreement across the bus, each of us thankful to be distracted from the ratatat of our hearts in our chests.
We read aloud from the testimony of a Nigerian woman who had been living in the UK for six years. She'd been forced into an abusive arranged marriage in Nigeria and had four children who were still there, being looked after by a friend. She sent money back so that her children could go to school. She detailed her fight with the Home Office to stay, terrified of being sent to a country where it was illegal to be gay. She talked of her abusive ex-husband who contacted her days before she was due to be deported, telling her that he'd be waiting to kill her when she lands. She pleaded, asking who would look after her children if she was murdered. The final words of her statement rung in each of our ears: "I am begging."
Your tears run fat when your heart breaks, and mine broke over and over again on that journey as we read more and more from those due to be carted off on the plane.
We arrived at Stansted, unloaded our carefully packed equipment, cut a hole through the fence, walked some 100 metres to the plane and locked ourselves around it. Just like we’d practiced.
Some ten hours later, I sat in the back of a police van, handcuffed – nappy mercifully unused.
A police cell is a surreal place. It’s empty, but for a bed and a toilet – the number of a drug snitch line painted on the wall. Time stretches and wraps around itself because you have no way of telling it. I sat there for hours, drifting in and out of sleep, considering what we had done.
We had no way of knowing it at the time, but our action would see 11 people remain in the country. To date, four have been granted their leave to remain. Two have been discovered to have been the victims of human trafficking and have been referred to the national referral mechanism for trafficking survivors. The others have cases ongoing.
I was released from police custody at about 1AM, out onto the dark streets of Harlow in Essex. We’d been charged with aggravated trespass, criminal damage and a Stansted bylaw. We were banned from the entire county of Essex and mandated to appear before a magistrates court at a later date.
So far, everything was proceeding as expected. Over the last few years, there’s been a series of different direct actions (particularly at airports) that have followed the same pattern. Action. Arrest. Aggravated Trespass charge. Trial at Magistrates. A maximum sentence of three months in prison hanging over the heads of those on trial.
Until recently, there was something of an unspoken contract that existed between the state and protesters. In 2007, a case appeared before the House of Lords featuring a collection of defendants, all of whom had participated in actions to stop the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In summing up, Lord Hoffman spoke of "a long and honourable history" of civil disobedience on conscientious grounds that exists in this country. He spelled out the existing state of the agreement, in which protesters behave with a sense of proportion, not causing excessive damage or inconvenience. In return, he suggested, the state must behave with restraint, taking into account the conscientious motives at play.
Restraint is contextual, but it’s hard to imagine many scenarios in which what happened to us next could comfortably be described as restrained.
In June of 2017, we received an email from our lawyers laying out communication from the Crown Prosecution Service, alerting them to a potential change of charge.
The charge they were seeking to proceed with was encased in the Aviation and Maritime Security act . Brought in after the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, the act was to be “another weapon in the battle [against terrorism]... helping to combat international terrorism in the sky and at sea", according to then-transport secretary Cecil Parkinson. The act entrenched an international anti-terror convention ( the Montreal Protocol) into domestic law. It’s listed as a convention offence within the Terrorism Act 2006, meaning anyone condoning or providing training to facilitate offences under it is liable to prosecution under terror law. Such is the gravity of the charge that it carries a potential life sentence, and requires the permission of the Attorney General to proceed with prosecution.
In July of 2017, four months after the action, with no material difference in the facts or evidence used to charge us with aggravated trespass, Jeremy Wright QC MP used his powers as Attorney General to charge 15 peaceful protesters with a terror-related offence.
Bad news – truly bad news – has a way of sucking the air out of the room. This news almost ripped us apart, both as a group and individually.
Our trial was moved from a six-day stint at the magistrates court in September of 2017 to a six-to-eight week trial scheduled to start at the beginning of March, 2018. Almost a year after the action. A series of agonising delays saw the start date pushed back again, and again, and again, until it finally started on Monday the 19th of March. It was aborted three days later.
Trial was rescheduled to start on the 1st of October, 2018. By the 10th of December, all 15 of us were found guilty by unanimous verdict. The jury had been deliberating for just seven-and-a-half hours over the course of three days.
Nothing really prepares you for the experience of being on trial, particularly one as heavily politicised as ours. Much has been written about it, from both in and outside the courtroom.
When the judge denied us access to the defence of necessity – where we’d admit to breaking the law, but only to prevent a greater harm – there was outrage. The pilot, who’d angrily shouted at us on the night, gave mistaken evidence about our numbers and actions – telling the court that three of us had run onto the runway, shutting the airport for 1 hour and 17 minutes – and provided much of the basis of the prosecution's arguments against us. We heard testimonies from those who were due to be on the flight that night, and gave our own from the stand. The prosecution deployed inflammatory language, describing us as insurgents, swarming out of the darkness of the night, while our legal teams defiantly closed our arguments, reasserting the true horror of the hostile environment.
This much has been reported. There are, however, things that haven’t really been talked about. The instances, opinions and experiences that we were forced to keep to ourselves – by order of the court, lest we unduly influence the outcome of the case.
Moments like the visit to Stansted Airport in the first few days of the case. The trip was designed to allow the jury and the judge a look at the area we’d spend the next ten weeks talking about. We’d piled onto two coaches – 15 of us and the majority of our legal team on one, the judge, prosecution and jury on another. The coaches retraced the route of our minibus some 18 months before, entering the deserted industrial park on the north side of the airport. We surveyed the fence; the square metre we’d previously cut out had been replaced, glaring slightly brighter in the sunshine than the rest of it. As we approached the bay where the plane had been parked, the familiar hangars and buildings we’d spent hours staring at that night came back into view. Judge, jury and prosecution walked around the plane parked in the bay.
For us, it was an opportunity to show how far away from the runway we’d been. To show how remote and detached the action had been from the main workings of the airport terminal (which was located a mile away). For the prosecution, it was an opportunity to prove how dangerous, loud and disorientating airports can be, helping to bolster their arguments around the "inherent" danger of our actions.
Two helicopters were wheeled out, their engines started and kept on, such that the noise made it hard to think. A line of police stood watching. As the noise from the helicopters became too much, we loaded onto our prospective coaches, the helicopters returned to their hangars as we drove away.
Beyond those little vignettes – those subtle instances of flexed power that only we got to see – there are two bigger incidents that stick with me. Two incidents that show how truly broken our criminal justice system has come to be.
Until the sentencing, we were banned from publicly speaking about the circumstances of the collapse of the first trial.
It is an accepted convention of our legal system that those accused of a crime must bear witness to the proceedings against them. They must engage with it, instructing their legal counsel, clarifying and reiterating points throughout the proceedings. In order to do that, particularly in a long and drawn-out case like ours, defendants make notes. They pass notes to their defence team, asking questions or making clear when the prosecution are bending the facts in their favour.
In March, as the jury was being sworn in, there were those in the dock who were making just such notes. After the jury was sworn in, and we prepared to leave for the day, the judge received a note from a jury member, concerned about this note taking. Part of a judge’s role is to guide a jury through the impenetrable milieu of our antiquated legal system. They explain the process. Explain the rules. They frame everything.
It was in this moment that the judge in our case, Judge Christopher Morgan, should have stepped up, explained the convention, quelled the fears of the jury and proceeded with the trial. He did not do this. Instead, he seized our notes and passed them to the prosecution without any chance for proper representations from our legal team. He determined that our intention had been to illegally interfere with the jury, and so discharged them – for fear the trial had been corrupted. He went further, insisting the CPS instigate a criminal investigation into the notes – an investigation that was later dropped.
In criminal trials, where a conflict of interest or a clear bias exists, it is for the trial judge, and the trial judge alone, to recuse themselves – to judge themselves unfit to run the trial. Judge Morgan’s seizing of our notes was so unusual that our legal team put in an application for him to recuse himself on grounds of bias, but he refused, forcefully disagreeing with our assessment of a conflict of interest or of bias.
It was a perceived bias that ran like a toxic thread through the entire trial, seemingly culminating in his summing up of the case at the beginning of December, 2018.
After the closing speeches of both the prosecution and defence cases, just before the jury is sent away to consider their verdict, a judge must summarise the case. This is split into two distinct parts: a summation of the facts and then a direction as to the law involved.
Part way through Judge Morgan’s summation of our case, one of my lawyers told me they thought it was "the worst, most one-sided" summing up they’d ever experienced. In a speech that lasted five hours across two days, the judge gave what I can only describe as a direction to convict. He seemingly introduced new evidence, revisited evidence we had successfully proved to be wrong and appeared to make sweeping assertions that painted an irrefutable picture of guilt – a picture painted upon a fabric of fiction. One of our barristers attempted to intervene and was told to "sit down, wait to hear if any of your grievances are answered, and if they are not, then to take it to another court".
A final application to dismiss the jury on the grounds they’d been irreversibly biased by the judge’s summing up was dismissed by that very same judge. The convictions came soon after.
In February, we narrowly escaped custodial sentences, and filed an appeal. Two weeks after sentencing, we received letters from the court, ordering us back in April to begin the process of standing trial for Aggravated Trespass. They then admitted this was a mistake, but the CPS made clear at the sentencing hearing that they intended to hold the threat of another trial over our heads, in case we win our appeal. This threat is made possible because the charges of Aggravated Trespass against us were never formally dropped.
The Stansted trials were a perfect storm, and show how little it takes to bend a case out of all proportion – and how lucky we were to walk away free. They show the unfairness of a system where a cabinet level decision can make an unprecedented escalation of a charge, with no material change in the evidence, without scrutiny. A system where one determined judge or witness can, it seems, skew a case. Where government departments who have been proven to be acting unlawfully can sit on the sidelines and gleefully watch on.
A trial like ours is simply a circus. A set piece. A theatre of war across which proxy battles may be fought. Bt what lies beneath is far more macabre.
A system that charges and prosecutes peaceful protesters under terror-related legislation cannot be just. A system that wantonly and aggressively deports those at very real risk of violence, torture, persecution and death before they’ve even had the chance to have their case heard properly cannot be one that suggests it’s built upon a sacrosanct set of human rights. A system that offers no support in meeting your legal obligations of attendance while potentially deciding on the future course of your life cannot possibly be described as fair.
If the Stansted action, the fight against the hostile environment and our time deep inside the legal system can teach us anything, it’s that we're living through a very dark time for justice in this country.