Christians' arms fair protest acquittal raises questions of biased policing

By staff writers
4 Feb 2014

Christians acquitted of aggravated trespass at the London arms fair say that their trial has raised issues about the way that police are deployed at arms industry events.

The five Christians, who include a Methodist minister, were arrested while blocking an entrance to the arms fair last September by kneeling in prayer.

Deputy District Judge Fern Russell found the five Christians Not Guilty of aggravated trespass at Stratford Magistrates' Court today (4 February).

She ruled that that they had a “reasonable excuse” not to leave the area as a police instruction had been understood as implying that they would not be immediately arrested if they moved over a line between private and public land. The court viewed police footage of the arrests, which showed a chaotic scene in which police appeared to make contradictory statements to the protesters.

The five defendants – James Clayton, Symon Hill, Chloe Skinner, Chris Wood and trainee Methodist minsiter Daniel Woodhouse – hugged each other in the dock after the verdict was announced. There were cheers and applause outside the courtroom, where the defendants had earlier prayed with supporters and Christian clergy.

The lack of clarity from the police, along with other issues that arose during the trial, has led the defendants to say that the police appear to be deployed at the biennial London arms fair for the benefit of the arms dealers, rather than for the impartial administration of the law.

The London arms fair is known more formally as Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEi).

During the trial, a police officer attached to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) testified that police at the fair had been briefed about dealing with protesters but had been told nothing about the possibility of illegal weapons being on sale.

On the same day that the Christians were arrested, two companies were thrown out of the arms fair for selling illegal torture equipment, but they have not been prosecuted. Under cross-examination, the police officer said that he had not even been told about the companies' removal.

The defendants pointed out that illegal equipment had been removed from every DSEi for ten years, but only after its presence was revealed in public. They suggested this information should be basic to any impartial briefing of the officers policing DSEi.

“Five months following the arms fair, an MoD policeman, responsible for policing the arms fair, admitted in court that he was unaware that torture equipment had been on sale under his watch,” said defendant Chloe Skinner after the trial.

She asked, “Is this an implicit concession that police may follow orders in an uninformed manner, to simply protect the interests of the state, the rich, the powerful and the militarised?”

The footage played in court showed Christian protesters offering to leave if the police would investigate the arms fair itself. The chief inspector in charge was heard to say “I think you know I can't do that.” In the witness box, Chloe Skinner testified that one police officer had told her that investigating the arms dealers was “above my pay grade”.

The prosecution alleged that the defendants had been determined to be arrested from the beginning. Under cross-examination, defendant Chris Wood replied, “I hadn't decided to go there that day to be arrested. That wasn't the plan... I wanted to engage the MoD police about why the illegal weaponry wasn't being investigated.”

All the defendants testified that they had been motivated by their Christian faith to resist the arms fair. James Clayton said that “as a citizen and a Christian” he could not ignore the immorality of the arms trade and the illegality of much of it. Daniel Woodhouse explained how the faith that led him to seek ordination in the Methodist Church also motivated his considered decision to blockade the arms fair.

Defence counsel Bernard Richmond QC argued that the presence of illegal torture equipment at the arms fair also gave his clients a “reasonable excuse” not to leave the arms fair entrance. He suggested that they were entitled to argue that “If your action stopped the sale of one article of torture and stopped one innocent man or woman being tortured, that is a worthy aim.”

However, the judge declined to rule either way on the question of whether the presence of illegal weaponry provided reasonable grounds for protesters to refuse to leave.

Giving her judgement, Deputy District Judge Russell said that the defendants were all "exemplary" characters and that their protest had unquestionably been peaceful.

After the trial, several of the defendants suggested that their arrest and trial had been a waste of taxpayers' money.

Around forty people joined a peaceful vigil outside the court during the trial. They handed out leaflets, talked with passers-by and held a banner reading “Don't let profits silence prophets”. Hundreds of others sent messages of support and prayed for those involved.

Amongst the defendants' supporters are the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, the comedian Mark Thomas and Members of Parliament including Plaid Cymru's defence spokesperson Elfin Llwyd, Labour's Linda Riordan and the Green Party's Caroline Lucas.

The United Reformed Church is so far the only denomination to have issued a statement in support of the defendants. Like Rowan Williams, they say that the trial should provoke public debate about the UK government's support for the arms industry.

The group were also supported by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), Occupy London and Christianity Uncut.

* More from Ekklesia on protests against the London Arms Fair: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/tags/8731

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