We should cherish dissenters trying to stop human rights abuses – not imprison them under anti-terrorism laws designed to prevent further Lockerbie bombings.
In March 2017, fifteen people tried to stop a secretive mass deportation to Nigeria and Ghana from Stansted Airport. Now known as the ‘Stansted 15’, they assert that the people on the plane would have faced gross human rights abuses on arrival, and that the mass deportation process was itself barely legal in the first place.
Their wholly peaceful and carefully planned protest was an attempt to protect people from harm, and to bring the issue of secretive mass deportations to public attention.
What the protestors were not prepared for was prosecution under the Aviation and Maritime Security Act. That Act, and the offence protestors have been charged with – ‘ intentional disruption of services at an aerodrome’ – was introduced after the Lockerbie bombing and designed with the most dangerous terrorism in mind. It carries, on conviction, a possible life sentence. So when then Attorney General Jeremy Wright gave permission to use this legislation to prosecute civil disobedience, it was a deeply cynical move, and a dangerous precedent. And it is a damning indictment of our government that today these peaceful protestors have been convicted.
Let’s be clear: the protesters firmly believed the people on board were in danger. The testimony of one woman, for example, whose asylum appeal had not even concluded, provides grim insight into the kind of treatment some people were expecting on arrival.
“I claimed asylum which was refused because of my sexuality. I am a lesbian which is not ok in Nigeria. My ex-husband said he knows I am being deported next week. He is waiting for me. He is planning to kill me.”
She was not alone – others on that flight foresaw a similar fate. It was, and remains, the protesters’ belief that these people were being placed in potentially mortal danger by a UK government determined to deport people no matter the cost. This belief is not flippantly held – it is rooted in evidence and experience.
We know, for example, that the Home Office has torn Windrush citizens from their families and deported them to countries they haven’t seen in decades. That half of police forces have reported undocumented victims of crime to the Home Office rather than supporting them. That people have been scared to visit a doctor or send their children to school because of backroom data-sharing deals between the Home Office and various departments in the name of creating a hostile environment.
And though fifty per cent of appeals against Home Office decisions succeed at the immigration tribunal, the Government has slashed legal aid and appeal rights to vanishing point, so that access to justice remains out of reach for all but a few. All the while, the Home Office – a beleaguered, bullying monolith now existing in a “continuous state of disaster management” – operates with a wilful, desensitised disregard for the fundamental rights of the thousands people now subject to its ever-increasing power.
It is a striking sign of the times that the Government has chosen to bring terrorism charges against peaceful protestors in a transparent bid to stifle dissent. Dissent is not terrorism, nor should it be labelled ‘domestic extremism’ – itself an ill-defined, virtually meaningless concept.
The parameters of legitimate protest, and the civil liberties of the wider population, have been increasingly intensely curtailed by the ‘exceptional’ measures of counter-terror law. And the state’s growing use of surveillance technology is not only a key tool for monitoring dissenters, but for discouraging dissent before it has even happened. At the same time, many governments, including our own, continue to criminalise solidarity with refugees and migrants, and to shirk their responsibilities to them under international human rights and refugee law. And racism and xenophobia are resurgent not only in the streets but in the corridors of power the world over.
Dissent is at its most precious when most threatened by the state. Right now, the Government is pressing through a counter-terror law that will criminalise people for expressing careless views about banned groups, or browsing the ‘wrong’ pages on the internet. Only weeks ago, Liberty intervened in the case of the ‘Frack Free Three’ – environmental campaigners who had been handed down incredibly harsh sentences for staging a peaceful protest against fracking and environmental damage in their local area.
Protest is a fundamental right, and it should be the bedrock of our democracy. In the face of state-sponsored cruelty and unfairness it is something to be cherished everywhere it is found, not punished with the threat of life imprisonment. Far from stifling critics of its policies with heavy-handed criminal charges, the Government should focus on ending the injustice and inhumanity that meant that the Stansted 15 ever had to protest at all.