Prosecuted under counter-terror legislation for blocking the takeoff of an immigration removal flight from Stansted airport, fifteen ant-deportation activists have had their convictions quashed.
In a judgement handed down by the court of appeal, the lord chief justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, said: “The appellants should not have been prosecuted for the extremely serious offence under section 1(2)(b) of the 1990 Act because their conduct did not satisfy the various elements of the offence”.
“There was, in truth, no case to answer”.
The ruling came more than two years after the 15 protesters were convicted following a nine-week trial of endangering the safety of an aerodrome, and offence under the 1990 Aviation and Maritime Security Act that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
It was the first time the terror related offence, passed in 1990 in response to the Lockerbie bombing, had been used against peaceful protesters.
The defendants said they were relieved by the decision. May MacKeith, 35, said that the time from their arrest in 2017 to Friday’s ruling put into perspective the experiences of people caught in the UK’s hostile environment immigration system.
She said: “It was frightening, but all along, despite the draconian charge, we knew that our actions were justified. We’ve never doubted that the people on that plane should never have been treated that way by our government”. Of those due to be deported on the flight, 11 were still in the UK, with three granted leave to remain.
In their appeal, lawyers for the defence argued the legislation used to convict the group was not only rarely used but also was not intended for the kinds of peaceful actions undertake by their clients. They said the prosecution stretched the meaning of the law by characterising the lock-on equipment they used to blockade the runway as devices used to endanger life.
Weighing the argument, Burnett said in his judgement: “The closure of the runway was undoubtedly disruptive and expensive, but there was not evidence that it resulted in likely endangerment to the safety of the aerodrome or of persons there”,
“The deployment of an unspecified number of police officers when the terrorist threat was severe may have increased the risks within the terminal, but there was no evidence to enable an inference to be drawn that endangerment was likely”.
“There may have been a slightly enhanced risk of a police officer slipping en route to the aircraft, but it would stretch both language and common sense to say that there was likely endangerment, both in terms of the probability of this happening and the seriousness of the consequences if it did happen”.
Burnett added: “Both the crown’s case and the summing-up collapsed the distinction between risk and likely danger and treated the offence as if it were akin to a health and safety provision”.
The defendants, all members of the group Stop Deportations, had taken part in a peaceful action that stopped a chartered deportation flight to Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone from taking off on 28th March 2017. Members of the group cut a hole in the airport’s perimeter fence before rushing on to the apron at Stansted.
Four protesters arranged themselves around the front landing gear of the aircraft, locking their arms together inside double-layers pipes filled with expanding foam. Further back, a second group of protesters erected a 2 metre tripod from scaffolding poles behind the engine on the left wing. One of them perched on top of the makeshift structure, while others locked themselves to the base to prevent it from being moved.
In the moments before police arrive they were able to display banners, including one that said: “No one is illegal”.
Although members of the group did receive suspended sentences or community orders, UN human rights experts wrote to the UK government expressing concern over the application of “security and terrorism-related legislation to prosecute peaceful political protesters and critics of state policy”.
Rights groups including Amnesty International and Liberty welcomed the ruling. But Raj Chada of Hodge Jones & Allen, who represented the defendants, said questions remained as to why the then attorney general, Jeremy Wright, had authorised the use of the charge in the first place.
He said; “It does make me uncomfortable that a British cabinet minister has authorised a terror charge against political opponents, that the lord chief justice has decided is completely inappropriate. The appellants should be told, why was this charge used in this way? What information did the attorney general have/”.