Activists who blockaded UK arms fair acquitted

Protesters who blockaded a London arms fair celebrate acquittals outside court. (CAAT)

Activists who protested against a major arms fair in London last year have been found not guilty of obstruction by a judge who described their actions as “reasonable.”

More than 100 were arrested during the Defence and Security Equipment International gathering in September 2017, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade said.

More than 40 people were charged, most with “obstruction of the highway.”

Nine of the protesters facing charges were acquitted last week by a district court judge, according to the campaign group.

On Saturday, a further three protesters were acquitted by a second judge.

“Reasonable”

Some of the world’s worst human rights abusers buy weapons at Defence and Security Equipment International, which takes place every two years. They include Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Israel.

A SandCat armored vehicle, made by Plasan, an Israeli company based in a kibbutz built on the ruins of a destroyed Palestinian village, was photographed being transported into the ExCel Centre in east London where the fair was held.

UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia have increased by nearly 500 percent since it began bombing Yemen in 2015, with more than $6.4 billion worth of weapons sold within the first two years.

During this period, Saudi Arabia has been accused of breaches of international humanitarian law and crimes against humanity.

Yemen is in the grip of a humanitarian catastrophe as a result of the conflict, with more than a million children suffering from malnutrition and at risk from cholera.

In 2007 and 2011, exhibitors at the London arms fair were found to have been promoting unlawful weapons after Amnesty International attended the event. Ever since this was exposed, according to the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, organizers of the arms fair have barred entry to Amnesty.

Given these circumstances, a district court judge described protesters’ actions as “reasonable” and threw out charges against five demonstrators last Wednesday, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade reported. Four others were found not guilty the following day.

Court backs the public

Three additional demonstrators arrested during Stop Arming Israel protests at the arms fair have had charges against them dropped. Others are still awaiting possible charges pending further investigation, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade said.

However, nine of the 10 protesters tried in January were found guilty, with some ordered to pay court costs.

There is a risk that the acquittal of the protesters will be appealed.

The High Court overturned the 2016 acquittal of activists who had protested the arms fair the previous year.

Chris Cole, one of the anti-arms trade activists found not guilty last week, nonetheless hailed the outcome of the trials as a victory.

With three other people, Cole had “locked on” in the middle of a road, blocking access to the venue for an hour and a half to prevent set up.

He told The Electronic Intifada: “The growing gulf between the negative views of the general public on the arms trade and those insisting that selling arms is a normal and legitimate business is likely to see growing protests, particularly at the next [Defence and Security Equipment International] arms fair in 2019.”

“Given that courts are beginning to back the public on this, politicians and arms companies have some serious thinking to do,” he said.

London mayor Sadiq Khan has called for the event to be scrapped.

Right to protest

Polling published by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade prior to the 2017 arms fair showed huge public opposition to the arms trade, with 76 percent of UK adults opposing weapons exports to repressive regimes.

Meanwhile, 64 percent were against government support for arms fairs that include representatives from governments with poor human rights records, such as Israel.

The court rulings are a boost to the right to protest in the face of heavy-handed policing meted out to demonstrators.

Cole said that when a police officer was asked in the witness stand how senior officers had instructed him to facilitate the activists’ right to protest, he replied that ensuring this right had not been part of his orders at all.

Cole added that the judge appeared to accept the argument that demonstrators had been exercising their rights under Articles 9, 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights and that civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action formed part of the democratic toolbox.

More trials related to the protests are due to be heard in the next two weeks.

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The people who put their freedom on the line to stop mass murder are to be celebrated, and this outcome, provisional as it is, should encourage many more to commit acts of civil disobedience on behalf of victims of this death cult we mistakenly call "Defense".

One quote near the end stood out in the context of Britain's impending departure from the EU:

"the judge appeared to accept the argument that demonstrators had been exercising their rights under Articles 9, 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights"

Those unfamiliar with the dynamic of Brexit agitation may have trouble understanding how abandoning protection for their own human rights can be made appealing to so many who voted to do so. But it's indisputable that derogating from the European Convention on Human Rights will have adverse effects on a large swathe of the population. And cases such as this one may prove harder to fight under the absolute jurisdiction of British law.

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Hilary Aked

Hilary Aked's picture

Hilary Aked (@hilary_aked) is a London-based freelance writer and researcher, an NCTJ-qualified journalist and a PhD student at the University of Bath researching the pro-Israel lobby in the UK. They also write for Spinwatch, Ceasefire, OpenDemocracy and Huffington Post.