Four arms fair protestors jailed
Four people who took part in a peaceful blockade at the Defence Systems and Equipment International (DSEi) arms fair in East London on 9 September 2003 have been sent to prison for one day rather than go against their consciences and pay fines and court costs.
The four were part of a group of eleven protestors charged with obstruction of the highway when they sat down in the road at the entrance to the arms fair for approximately 20 minutes. The group were on trial at Stratford Magistrates Court on 22 and 23 January.
On announcing the verdict of guilty, the district judge said that the defendants were 'genuine, highly principled and motivated' and acknowledged that the spirit of the actions they took were 'important to a democratic society'. However, he chose to interpret the law rigidly and disregard the considerable evidence supplied relating to the reasonableness of the obstruction with regard to the seriousness of the protestors' concerns, the context of the protest and right to freedom of expression [A].
Before going to prison, Anne Kobayashi, aged 63 from Essex, said, "This is a failed opportunity on the part of the legal system to take a courageous stand against the injustices and illegalities of the arms trade. It is in contradiction to the stated ethical policy of this government."
Instead, the judge said that the only lawful excuse would have been if defendants had information on specific illegal activities taking place within the fair.
Defendant Emma Sangster, age 37 from London, said, "It is ridiculous to suggest that the only lawful excuse for our protest was if we had information that we could not possibly have obtained. The prosecution even argued that the fair could have been selling 'fruit and veg' for all anyone knew - a gross trivialisation of an extremely important issue. It is the very controversial nature of the arms fair itself which means that anybody who is not invited, including press, are not allowed in. However, we do know from previous arms fairs and information that came out after the event last year that illegal and unlicensed activities have taken place there [B]."
She added, "The judge said that our arguments are 'worthy of respect in other ways…but not in law'. We made a very strong case for the reasonableness of our action. In our opinion the judge failed to address the issues of freedom of expression and right to peaceful assembly fully and remained stuck in a narrow and pre-Human Rights Act interpretation of the law which might not stand up in Strassbourg European Court of Human Rights [A]. The rights of people who have serious and legitimate concerns about the effects of such policies as state subsidy of the arms trade should be given equal weight to the rights of those making money from such trade. Yet the police put all their effort into enabling the arms fair and reducing to a minimum the opportunities for legal protest."
The defendants referred to evidence that the police were issued orders from "ministerial level" to ignore serious breaches of the law that were taking place inside the fair as dozens of the 1,000 companies touting for business at the arms fair were unlicensed and trading. [B]
The defendants used a number of additional arguments to defend the reasonableness of their action including the well documented effects of the arms trade and effects of its products on civilian populations and concerns that countries had been invited to the arms fair by the British Government who either have appalling human rights records or are subject to pressure by the same government to crack down on terrorism or weapons of mass destruction [C].
Contact for more information: 07791 486 484.
A. The rights to Freedom of Expression and Assembly are written into Articles 10 and 11
of the Human Rights Act 1998.
B. See 'Ministers Dismiss Police Arms Fears', Daily Mirror, 13 September
C. For more information see Campaign Against Arms Trade's briefing 'DSEi 2003:
international arms market'