Quaker pensioner risks prison after conviction for arms fair protest

By staff writers
February 25, 2014

A seventy year-old Quaker from North Yorkshire has refused to pay a fine imposed this morning for a peaceful protest at the London arms fair last year. Syliva Boyes was convicted of obstructing a public highway and told to pay £100 plus £340 costs.

After her refusal to pay the fine, District Judge Paul Goldspring, sitting at Stratford Magistrates' Court in London, said he could send her to prison for fourteen days.

He decided instead to order that the money be removed from he pension before she receives it. There is some doubt as to whether this is technically possible so Boyes may still find herself in prison.

Siobhan Grimes, an Anglican activist arrested at the same time as Boyes, was also expecting a trial today, but was told when she arrived at court that the case against her had been dropped.

Despite around thirty arrests at last year's London arms fair, Boyes is the first person to have been fined. Charges have been dropped against at least eight of those arrested, while five charged over a Christian protest that blocked a pedestrian entrance to the fair were found Not Guilty earlier this month. Others who pled Guilty received conditional discharges.

The lack of convictions has caused embarrassment for the Crown Prosecution Service and the police. They have been accused of focusing on peaceful protesters while never prosecuting the many companies in the London arms fair that have been exposed in the media for selling illegal equipment such as torture devices.

The London arms fair, known formally as Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEi), is held every second September at the Excel Centre in east London. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is among those to have offered his support to the protesters arrested at DSEi.

Boyes and Grimes were arrested with around sixteen others on 8 September 2013 as they sat or lay on a road leading to the Excel Centre, which had already been mostly blocked off by police. Shortly afterwards, supporters of Christianity Uncut, including three Church of England priests, held an exorcism ceremony in the road to pray for the removal of the evil of arms dealing.

Boyes told the court, “With democracy comes responsibility and I have to take action... I was making a stand against government policy, directly trying to prevent the free passage of arms exporters and human rights abusers along the highway. I could do no other.”

She said that she had taken the action because she was “trying to prevent a crime.” She compared the arms trade to the transatlantic slave trade of the eighteenth century.

When the judge asked “Why didn't everybody who was protesting sit in the road?”, Boyes responded, “If only they had!”.

In his judgement, Goldspring quoted a 2006 case before the Law Lords in which it had been ruled that a court could not regard the prevention of a breach of international law as a defence to a charge under English law. He added that the right to exercise free expression “does not give you carte blanche to do so however you think fit”. He argued that it should be balanced against “the need in a civilised society for good order and peace”.

Acknowledging the limitations of the judicial system, Boyes said, “I will take the consequences.” She also paraphrased the apostle Paul's words in the second letter to the Corinthians, saying “The letter of the law killeth but the Spirit giveth life.”

The judge said that he could not give a conditional discharge because Boyes had 28 previous convictions, for 44 offences, dating back to 1986. All of them were for nonviolent resistance to the arms trade, nuclear weapons, militarism and war.

Told to pay the fine, Boyes said calmly “I refuse to pay.” Although the judge had repeatedly said earlier that he could not consider “political” arguments, he then appeared to engage in political argument when he suggested it was inconsistent of Boyes to take her state pension but to refuse to pay a fine.

He triggered puzzled expressions when he suggested that Boyes should perhaps “go into politics yourself”.

Her supporters later pointed out that Boyes had been a political activist for decades. A number of people in the public gallery commented afterwards on what they perceived as Goldspring's “patronising” manner.

The jailers were ordered into the dock while Goldspring considered a 14-day prison sentence. He chose instead to order the money removed from Boyes' pension before she receives it, although it is not clear if the legal mechanism for this exists.

Supporters in the gallery stood up and applauded as Sylvia Boyes walked from the courtroom.

“What Sylvia was protesting against was the military and political support that the UK gives to dictatorships and the weapons that are sold at events like DSEi,” said Andrew Smith of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) immediately after the trial. “Sylvia should have been congratulated on her stance. The people who should be charged are those who were selling the weapons.”


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