Terrorism and its opposite: the Stansted 15

By Savi Hensman
March 27, 2018

Fifteen people are on trial for ‘terrorist’ offences because they were involved in nonviolent direct action to prevent harm to others. This is a grave attack on freedom and an insult to victims of actual terrorism.

The Stansted 15

Suppose, in a case of mistaken identity, you were arrested at dawn, told you had no right to stay in this country and were about to be deported. Worse still, you had a similar name to a famous exile and knew that a brutal regime would be out to capture, torture and maybe kill you.

If your friends rallied round as you were dragged to a waiting aircraft, lying down on the runway, they might expect trouble with the law. But with horribly twisted logic, the British state might now charge them as terrorists. Those who try to save lives nonviolently are lumped together with those who bomb or shoot helpless victims.

On 19 March 2018, protestors gathered outside Chelmsford Crown Court as the trial of 15 anti-deportation activists began.They were arrested a year ago after they reportedly blocked a Stansted airport aeroplane from taking off, to protect people from being deported.

Some detainees were removed on a later flight. But according to the defendants, they stopped 34 of the 57 deportations: a 48-hour delay allowed these detainees time to make their case properly.

A few months later the UK government’s ‘deport first, appeal later’ policy was ruled unlawful. Indeed many aspects of its treatment of migrants and refugees are questionable under international and sometimes national law. In 2017 the Home Secretary risked being jailed for contempt of court in her eagerness to deport a man at risk of being beheaded by the Taliban

The Stansted 15 were charged with aggravated trespass, as is usual. But a far more serious charge was added: that of ‘endangering an airport’ under section 1 of the Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990. This was brought in after the Lockerbie bombing.

Section 1 of the Act, according to the transport secretary at the time, Cecil Parkinson, “deals with what are essentially terrorist acts at airports.” The maximum sentence is life imprisonment. Writers, actors, film directors, journalists, voluntary sector figures and politicians have urged that the charges be dropped and use of charter flights for secret deportations stopped

If the government can get away with treating these non-violent protestors as if they were terrorists, it is almost certain to extend this further. Since the Terrorism Act 2000, the definition of terrorism has been extremely loose, for instance seriously damaging property in an ideological or religious cause while trying to influence the government.

For example protesters upset that a motorway is being dug through their neighbourhood, at risk of destroying livelihoods and polluting the air, might pour glue on mechanical diggers. Whether they are right or wrong, it is unjust and indeed offensive to treat them as if they had committed mass murder.

Even the official reviewer has criticised these laws, which may silence journalists and other dissidents.

Human rights and belief

Confusing terrorism and nonviolent direct action can result in human rights violations as well as diverting the security forces from focusing on preventing horrific violence.

In addition in some faith and other belief traditions, putting conscience above the letter of the law when the vulnerable are at risk may be regarded as virtuous, even a duty. Those who act in this way know they might face penalties. But spending decades in prison for trying to save, rather than destroy, lives is out of all proportion.

If the state is not challenged when it tries to use its powers in oppressive ways, society as a whole is damaged. It remains to be seen what will happen at the end of the trial of the Stansted 15. But if found guilty of the more far-fetched charges, the consequences could be grim, not only for the defendants but also the nation.


© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (http://dltbooks.com/titles/2195-9780232532616-feast-or-famine)

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