Disrupting an Aerodrome
The Stansted 15 – non-violent protesters who stopped an aircraft taking off with deportees to Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone in March 2017 – have joined the ranks of highly motivated people willing to risk jail to stop a perceived injustice. The passengers on the flight included deportees who were subject to the Home Office’s then policy of ‘deport first, appeal later’, which the Supreme Court later ruled to be unlawful. The 15 got through the airport fence and blocked the path of the plane, causing the flight to be cancelled. Some of the deportees subsequently won the right to remain in the UK. The 15 were found guilty under the Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990 of ‘disrup[ting] the services of … an aerodrome, in such a way as to endanger or be likely to endanger the safe operation of the aerodrome or the safety of persons at the aerodrome’. They are awaiting sentence. The maximum is life imprisonment, but the question for the court is likely to be whether to give them a prison sentence at all.
Their offence is not itself a terrorism offence, but anyone who encourages others to commit it – it is on a long list drawn up by Council of Europe’s Convention for the Prevention of Terrorism, to which the UK is a signatory – may commit a separate offence under the Terrorism Act 2006. The 15 were not charged with anything under the UK’s extensive terrorism legislation.
The courts normally pass non-custodial sentences on people convicted of non-violent protest-related offences, although serial offenders may eventually wind up in prison, particularly if they defy operative court orders, by for example continuing to commit offences while subject to a conditional discharge. In a 2006 appeal to the House of Lords by Margaret Jones, who had been convicted of criminal damage at an RAF base in a protest on the eve of the Iraq war in 2003, Lord Hoffman said:
civil disobedience on conscientious grounds has a long and honourable history in this country. People who break the law to affirm their belief in the injustice of a law or government action are sometimes vindicated by history. The suffragettes are an example which comes immediately to mind. It is the mark of a civilised community that it can accommodate protests and demonstrations of this kind. But there are conventions which are generally accepted by the law-breakers on one side and the law-enforcers on the other. The protesters behave with a sense of proportion and do not cause excessive damage or inconvenience. And they vouch the sincerity of their beliefs by accepting the penalties imposed by the law. The police and prosecutors, on the other hand, behave with restraint and the magistrates impose sentences which take the conscientious motives of the protesters into account. The conditional discharges ordered by the magistrates in the cases which came before them exemplifies their sensitivity to these conventions.
Until September 2018, when a judge in Lancashire sent down three people charged with ‘public nuisance’ in a protest against fracking, no non-violent political protester was known to have been jailed in the UK since 1932. The Court of Appeal swiftly freed them, but rejected the proposition that jail could never be appropriate.
Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights protect the right to demonstrate and protest. In principle, prosecution and detention are compatible with the right to protest only if they are proportionate to the need to maintain public order or to protect the rights and freedoms of others. The question will always be case and fact-specific. In sentencing for any offence, the court always assesses the harm done and the degree of culpability. Crimes committed peacefully in the course of a protest and out of conscience are deemed to bear low culpability.
The Stansted 15 await their sentence and have indicated that they will try to have the convictions quashed. It would be surprising and shocking if they were sent to prison. The trial judge told the jury that their defence case – that they were justifiably preventing unlawful acts by the government – was not a defence in law. That made guilty verdicts almost inevitable.
Anyone engaged in more than trivial acts of civil disobedience must be willing to take the risk of being convicted and punished. It’s in the brochure – Lord Hoffman’s ‘convention’. Without necessarily seeking martyrdom, the protester will also acknowledge that the right characterisation of the penalty as unjust can draw additional sympathy for the cause.
The Stansted 15 were originally charged with ‘aggravated trespass’: the default option for police and prosecutors dealing with protests on private land. Then, for reasons that have not been disclosed, they were charged instead with the potentially far more serious ‘aerodrome’ disruption charge. The quaint word calls to mind the 1941 novel of that name by Rex Warner, in which the quasi-fascist staff of an English military airfield take over the disorderly and all-too-human village that adjoins it.
If nothing else, this case shows that if non-violent protesters can stop a plane taking off by sticking themselves to the tarmac, how easy it would be for people with far less benign intentions to get into an airport and cause mayhem. Red faces for those responsible for the security of the fence at Stansted.