Christians on trial for a peaceful protest against the arms trade have spoken about the presence of illegal torture equipment at the London arms fair. The five defendants, who include a Methodist minister, went on trial yesterday (3 February 2014) in Stratford Magistrates' Court in east London.
They were arrested last September while blocking an entrance to the arms fair by kneeling in prayer and singing hymns. They are charged with aggravated trespass.
The defence argued that the five Christians had a “reasonable excuse” in law for failing to leave when requested, because of the presence of illegal equipment in the arms fair that was not being investigated.
During their trial, the defendants contrasted their own treatment with that of two companies who were asked to leave the fair when it was revealed that they were selling illegal torture equipment. The companies in question were not charged with any crime.
The biennial London arms fair is known formally as Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEi). This is the first of several trials this month of people arrested while protesting at the fair in September 2013.
Under cross-examination, a police officer attached to the Ministry of Defence said that police on duty at DSEi had not been told about the illegal equipment after it had been removed, let alone briefed about the need to check that nothing illegal was happening within the arms fair.
Giving evidence, defendants Chloe Skinner and Symon Hill pointed out that illegal equipment had been found at DSEi on the previous five occasions it had been held.
Joining them in the dock are Chris Wood, James Clayton and Dan Woodhouse, who is a trainee minister in the Methodist Church. They are expected to give evidence tomorrow.
Defendants testified that they had told the chief inspector in charge of their arrests that they would move out of the entrance if the he went into the arms fair to investigate it. He refused to do so.
Issues of religious language made an unexpected experience in court when a police officer testified that one defendant, Symon Hill, had been “shouting loudly in a religious manner”.
Defence counsel Bernard Richmond QC suggested that this was an unnecessarily derogatory term and that Hill was reciting the twenty-third psalm. He was also pointing out what was wrong with the arms fair while using the word “sin”.
Asked about the irritation and inconvenience caused to the police and visitors to the arms fair, Chloe Skinner said, “My intention was not to irritate. I generally prefer not to irritate. I think that slowing the arms fair was more important.”
About forty people gathered for a peaceful vigil outside the court in support of the defendants. They have also been backed by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, by the US Baptist leader Tony Campolo and by the United Reformed Church.
The case continues.
* More from Ekklesia on protests against the London Arms Fair: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/tags/8731