Six people facing trial for a peaceful protest at the London arms fair have been told that the charges have been dropped, only days before they were due in court. Critics suggest that the authorities are avoiding public scrutiny, as the activists had intended to bring evidence about illegal activity by arms dealers at the event.
"It seems that the case against us was dropped as the authorities do not want to have to deal with our questions," said the six defendants in a statement.
The news comes only two weeks after the acquittal of five Christians on similar charges. Charges have already been dropped against one campaigner who took part in blockading the London offices of the US arms company Lockheed Martin during the arms fair.
However, two activists - Siobhan Grimes, an Anglican and Sylvia Boyes, a Quaker - are still due to stand trial on Tuesday 25 February. A third, Daniel Ashman, will be tried on 4 July.
The six whose charges have been dropped were arrested on 8 September 2013 as they blocked entrances to the arms fair two days before it was due to open. They delayed the movement of military equipment into the Excel Centre, where the arms fair – known formally as Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEi) – is held every two years.
The charges against them included obstruction of a public highway and obstructing a police officer.
The activists, supported by a range of groups including the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), intended to pursue a "justification defence". They planned to call expert evidence from Amnesty International that “there have been specific breaches of UK arms export control legislation at every DSEi fair since 2005”.
During DSEi 2013, two companies were told to leave the fair after promoting illegal torture equipment, but they do not appear to have been charged. This was the sixth occasion on which companies were removed from DSEi for illegal activity. In each case, the removal has taken place only after exposure in the media and none of the companies have been prosecuted.
Despite this, the activists' requests under the Freedom of Information Act and attempts to gain disclosure of relevant facts through the courts have been thwarted.
The decision to drop the charges has led to suspicion that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and police are afraid of scrutiny concerning their decision to charge peaceful activists but not arms dealers who displayed illegal equipment.
During the trial of the five Christians earlier this month, a Ministry of Defence policeman admitted under cross-examination that the police at DSEi had been briefed about possible protests but not about possible illegal activity by arms dealers.
Publicity concerning the prosecutions increased after the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, expressed his support for the five Christians tried in early February, as well as others taking nonviolent direct action against the arms fair. His letter was read out in court by the lawyer for three activists who pled guilty to aggravated trespass and who then received a conditional discharge, the lightest sentence permitted.
DSEi regularly draws criticism not only for illegal weapons but for the invitation of oppressive and aggressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Israel.
“Whilst it is welcome that the case against our clients has been dropped, the real issue is why these arms companies have been allowed to act with impunity," said Raj Chada of Hodge, Jones & Allen, solicitor for the six defendants.
He explained, "We have written to the CPS, HMRC [Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs], [the] Attorney General and the Home Secretary to demand why those that promote these unlawful weapons aren’t being prosecuted. Total policing does not seem to apply if you are an arms dealer.”
Symon Hill, one of the five Christians found not guilty earlier this month said, "The prosecutions are unravelling. Around thirty people were arrested at the arms fair, but five of us were acquitted and now several charges have been dropped. Police and prosecutors have questions to answer about why they used taxpayers' money to charge peaceful protesters but not dealers in torture equipment. We must make sure that the public scrutiny does not go away."
CAAT, Christianity Uncut and other groups are appealing for people to show their support when Siobhan Grimes and Sylvia Boyes stand trial at Stratford Magistrates' Court in east London on Tuesday 25th February.
All those arrested at DSEi have received support from activist comedian Mark Thomas, along with Members of Parliament including the Green Party's Caroline Lucas, Plaid Cymru's Elfin Llwyd and Labour's Linda Riordan.
The six defendants who now have no charges to face declared, "It’s not a cause for celebration that the case against us has been dropped. The celebration will come when the arms fair has been shut down for good.”