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Stansted 15
The Stansted 15photography Kristian Buus

What you need to know about the 15 activists who stopped a deportation

The activist group have been convicted under obscure terrorism charges for peacefully protesting in front of a plane carrying 60 vulnerable deportees

Today is a grim day for our justice system. After three long days of deliberation, a group who have been dubbed the Stansted 15 have been found guilty on terror-related charges for a peaceful protest.

In March 2017, the Stansted 15 joined themselves together with pipes and foam to obstruct the take-off of a plane bound for Nigeria, Ghana, and Sierra Leone. Just as they locked themselves together on to the nose wheel and wing of the deportation flight, the activist group clasped on to each other as they awaited the court’s verdict. “We all held hands in the dock, as we waited for the jury to come in,” May McKeith, one of the protesters, tells Dazed. “I can only speak for myself, I just felt totally shocked. The whole thing is just unbelievable. Totally unreal.”

“I’m mainly really sad that this jury and judge didn’t have the courage to stand up for what’s right,” she explains. “It’s very clear that what we did was right, and that people have been able to stay in the country as a result of that act. A man was able to see his daughter who was born after the flight was cancelled. It’s about human kindness, and it’s a real shame that (the jury) didn’t have the courage to stand up for that.”

Originally, the group had been charged with aggravated trespass, an offence that has the maximum penalty of three months’ imprisonment or a fine of £2,500, though most first offenders would get a fine of about £300. However, four months later, this was changed to an endangerment charge, which was created to stop terrorism after the Lockerbie bombs. This charge could see them put away for life. This harsh sentence for a peaceful protest has angered human rights activists. McKeith even manages to laugh at the “irony” that this news has surfaced on Human Rights Day. 

Even though she feels “numb and furious” about the ordeal, she says the group are “more determined than ever”. “We won’t let this break us. I will say that we are appealing the case so we’ll see what the High Court has to say about the whole proceedings,” she adds. Here’s everything you need to know about the case.

THE PROTEST

Back in March of 2017, 15 activists took to the tarmac at Stansted Airport (one of the UK’s busiest) in a bid to stop a chartered flight taking asylum seekers and migrants to Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Ghana. In an act of non-violent protest, the Stansted 15 cut through fences and secured themselves to each other around the Home Office-chartered plane. In two lines, the group held banners that read “No one is illegal”, while also putting their arms inside pipes and filling them with expandable foam. Scaffolding poles were set up on the aircraft’s wing, where one demonstrator locked themselves.

The flight, which was due to take off at midnight, was grounded and the group – who became known as the Stansted 15 – stopped the deportation of 60 people. The Stansted 15 were subsequently arrested for their actions and charged with “aggravated trespass”. However, four months on from the event, the charges were changed to “endangering safety at aerodromes”, which is an obscure, rarely used terror-related felony that can bring with it a life sentence.

All of the activists are part of End Deportations, a direct action group that platforms acts of resistance to mass deportations.

THE TRIAL AND VERDICT

The group plead not guilty to intentional disruption of services and the endangerment at an aerodrome (1990 Aviation and Maritime Security Act) at the Chelmsford Crown Court.

During the nine week-long trial, a jury was told that flights had to be diverted due to the protest, and activity at the airport was suspended. The prosecution argued that this caused distress and threats to the safety of the airport and its users. The jury heard the defendants outline their belief that the people being deported were vulnerable, and at risk of death, torture and persecution if they left Britain. A video of the entry onto the airfield and protest was also shown to the court.

The judge, Christopher Morgan, reportedly told the jury pre-deliberation to disregard the defence that they were attempting to stop human rights abuses. Morgan told the jury that any alleged human rights abuses, immigration policy and issues of proportionality didn’t have “any relevance” to whether an offence was committed or not, and to only consider the “real and material” risks, according to the Independent.

“We were asked tonnes of irrelevant questions. Absolutely tonnes,” McKeith says. “To be honest, that felt like a smoke and mirrors attempt to distract attention from the fact that there was no real case here. The trial is a farce.”

It took three days for a jury of six men and six women to find the defendants guilty. Several human rights organisations criticised the obscure charges used; Amnesty International’s UK director Kate Allen described it as “using a sledgehammer to crack a nut”. Since the verdict, Amnesty has condemned the result as a “crushing blow” for human rights in the UK. “It’s deeply disturbing that peaceful protesters who caused disruption but at no time caused harm to anyone, should now be facing a possible lengthy prison sentence,” Allen said.

WHO THEY ARE

– Helen Brewer, 28
– Lyndsay Burtonshaw, 28
– May McKeith, 33
– Nathan Clack, 30
– Benjamin Smoke, 27
– Laura Clayson, 28
– Melanie Evans, 35
– Nicholas Sigsworth, 29
– Joseph McGahan, 35
– Jyotsna Ram, 33
– Melanie Strickland, 35
– Ruth Potts, 44
– Alistair Tamlit, 30
– Edward Thacker, 29
– Emma Hughes, 38

Following today’s result, the group released this statement: “We are guilty of nothing more than intervening to prevent harm. The real crime is the government’s cowardly, inhumane and barely legal deportation flights and the unprecedented use of terror law to crack down on peaceful protest.

“We must challenge this shocking use of draconian legislation, and continue to demand an immediate end to these secretive deportation charter flights and a full independent public inquiry into the government’s ‘hostile environment’.”

One of the activists, Melanie Strickland, said in a statement: “To be found guilty of a terror-related charge for a peaceful protest is devastating for us, and profoundly disturbing for democracy in this country. It’s the Home Office’s brutal, secretive and barely legal practice of mass deportation flights that is putting people in danger, and their ‘hostile environment’ policy that is hurting vulnerable people from our communities. It’s the Home Office that should have been in the dock, not us.”

“It seems to me that this (verdict) is a really transparent act to terrify people into submission and a disgusting act of trying to silence people from standing up for what they know is right,” adds McKeith. 

THE PEOPLE THEY HELPED

60 people who were due to be deported (‘deport now, investigate later’ is the general rule of the Home Office) on that flight were grounded that day. Since then, ten are pursuing asylum in the UK, and at least one person has been granted leave to remain in the UK.

One passenger who faced deportation wrote a defense of the group in the Guardian. They wrote that they faced homelessness and no life back in Nigeria, having stayed in the UK since 2004. Since the Stansted 15 protest, they have successfully applied to remain. “There’s no doubt in my mind that these 15 brave people are heroes, not criminals. For me a crime is doing something that is evil, shameful or just wrong – and it’s clear that it is the actions of the Home Office that tick all of these boxes; the Stansted 15 were trying to stop the real crime being committed.” 

WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE STANSTED 15

Raj Chada, a partner from Hodge Jones & Allen who represented all 15 of the defendants, said in a statement: “In our view, it is inconceivable that our clients were charged under counter terrorism legislation for what was a just protest against deporting asylum seekers. Hodge Jones & Allen previously represented 13 defendants who protested at Heathrow in similar circumstances to the 15 at Stansted, yet they were not charged with this draconian legislation.

“We believe this was an abuse of power by the Attorney General and the CPS as they should never have been charged with these offences. The fact is that the actions of these protesters resulted in two people who were about to be wrongfully deported remaining in the UK.”

The sentencing is expected to happen in February 2019.

WHY FORCED DEPORTATIONS ARE UNJUST

The system surrounding immigration detention and removal in Britain is cruel and unjust, something human rights organisations and grassroots groups from Amnesty International to End Deportations and Lesbian and Gays Support the Migrants have been vocal about. The UK is the only European nation where migrants can be detained indefinitely, and the treatment of migrant women at detention centres like Yarl’s Wood has drawn major concern.

As well as endangering the lives of the vulnerable, it’s also a huge expense. As Huck reports, it costs approximately £12,000 to house someone seeking asylum, compared to £35,000 to detain a person each year. Deporting just one person costs about £5,000. 

“They’re brutal, they’re secretive, they’re barely legal, they shouldn’t be happening, they have to stop now,” McKeith tells Dazed. “We’re also calling for an immediate investigation, a public inquiry, an independent public inquiry, into the home offices’ hostile environment. We’re calling for that as a matter of urgency”

For many, deportation can be a death sentence, especially for those who have fled their home countries due to fear of being persecuted for political or social reasons. Earlier this year, Gloria Namuzungu, a 22-year-old lesbian woman, faced deportation after being detained in Yarl’s Wood. She was to be deported back to her home country of Uganda, where homosexuality is illegal, but was able to successfully overturn the ruling. Others have not been so lucky.

The recent Windrush Scandal highlighted how people have been wrongfully detained, denied access to services, and deported despite living in the UK legally for decades. The Home Office was warned multiple times about its failings, under which a large number of people have suffered. But the scandal really represents the tip of an iceberg, as the Home Office deports over 12,000 people a year in “enforced returns”.

Many forced deportations also turn violent, and people have died during some incidents. In 2010, private security guards from G4S restrained the Angolan deportee Jimmy Mubenga, who subsequently died during an altercation on a BA flight. He was heard saying “I can’t breathe” and “they’re killing me”. The security guards were charged and cleared of manslaughter. Since then, multiple violent and forceful incidents of forced deportation have been caught on camera and by reporters.

WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP

In 2017, 12,666 people were forcibly deported from the UK, which is around 35 people a day. While many of them are put on Home Office-chartered planes, others are sent back to their home countries on commercial flights. Some people who have witnessed deportations on commercial airlines have done what Swedish student activist named Elin Ersson did – refused to take their seats, and kicked up enough of a fuss that a pilot will ground the plane. Activist groups have outlined how to help stop a deportation before, during and after the event.

Groups like Right to Remain and Anti-Raids Network offer guidance and advice on how to support people facing raids and deportation, while other organisations like These Walls Must Fall and SOAS Detainee Support campaign to close centres like Yarl’s Wood and offer help to those inside. Detained Voices publishes the stories of people facing deportation, and the experiences shared offer expansive insight into the system and who it afflicts. Grassroots groups like Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants, Plane Stupid, End Deportations and Sisters Uncut challenge the UK’s unjust immigration process and system, and are good resources to find out how you too can be an ally. Many of these groups organise rallies and protests as and when cases come up.

Right now, people need to remain vocally outraged about the treatment and conviction of the Stansted 15. That means tweeting, sharing and making noise in solidarity, especially given that the sentencing is set for February and they face lengthy sentences. A legal fund has been set up to help with the costs of the trial and so the group can appeal the conviction, which you can actively donate to. A protest in solidarity and to resist the current immigration system is scheduled for tomorrow at 17.30 outside the Home Office in London.

It’s also worth writing to your local MP to express your concern about how this case was handled and the cruel charges brought on the group. Home Secretary Sajid Javid sets policy around immigration, so it’s important he is also aware of the shared outrage.

You can send a message of solidarity to the Stansted 15 via Amnesty International’s Write for Rights campaign here.