The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has said that the trial of five Christian protesters in London next week should trigger public debate about the UK government's support for the arms trade. The five were arrested while peacefully blocking an entrance to the London arms fair in September 2013.
The five Christians, who include a Methodist minister, will be tried in Stratford Magistrates' Court in east London on Monday 3 and Tuesday 4 February 2014. Supporters of the defendants will gather for a peaceful vigil outside the court from 9.00am onwards on each day.
They are charged under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 with disrupting a lawful business activity and failing to move when requested to do so by a senior police officer. They have all entered pleas of 'Not Guilty'.
The maximum penalty is three months' imprisonment, although commentators say that a fine is more likely.
Williams, who stepped down in 2012 and is now chair of Christian Aid, has already offered his support to the defendants. He has now said that the case should be seen as an opportunity for the public to voice their views on the government's support for the arms industry.
The former Archbishop explained, "We still badly need an honest debate about the arms trade – about the kinds of modern armaments that seem to contravene any defensible ethical framework, especially the refinements of anti-personnel weapons which cause most moral scandal.”
He added, “This case has opened up the possibility of such honesty and I hope the chance will not be wasted."
Two companies were told to leave the London arms fair in September after Caroline Lucas MP publicised the fact that they were displaying illegal torture equipment. Critics have pointed out that no-one from these companies has been charged with a crime, but that peaceful Christians who attempted to stop such sales are on trial.
Those on trial include Dan Woodhouse, a trainee minister in the Methodist Church. He will be joined in the dock by PhD student Chloe Skinner, caterer Chris Wood, teacher James Clayton and writer Symon Hill.
They were arrested on 10 September as they knelt in an entrance to the arms fair. Arms dealers entering the fair were held up for nearly an hour as the group prayed, sang hymns and engaged others in conversation. They say they were inspired by Jesus' example of nonviolent resistance.
Two other Christians, Alison Parker and Angela Ditchfield, joined them in blocking the gate but left before the arrests were made. Others held up a banner reading "This is a dead end. There is another way."
Many of those involved are members of Christianity Uncut or the Speak network. They are supported by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) and the Stop the Arms Fair coalition.
A number of other protesters arrested at the arms fair will go on trial later in the month.
The London arms fair, known formally as Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEi) regularly draws protests over the presence of regimes with poor human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
* More from Ekklesia on protests against the London Arms Fair: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/tags/8731