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Stansted 15
The Stansted 15via Sam Walton

I’m one of the Stansted 15, the peaceful protesters convicted of terrorism

The protesters who stopped a deportation now face a maximum sentence of life in prison – one activist tells the inside story

It’s a weird feeling, to be at the dead centre of a storm. All around you, chaos erupts, your world ripped around by forces you can’t control. But you stand there, in the middle of it, an uneasy calm draped over you, watching.

That’s really the only way to describe what happened on December 10 last year. After a gruelling 10 week trial, I was one of 15 people convicted of a terror-related offence for my part in the blockade of a deportation charter flight at Stansted Airport on the evening of March 28 2017.

The flight that night was due to deport around 60 people to Nigeria and Ghana. On board, we knew there to be vulnerable people, at risk of harm, torture or death, including a lesbian woman who had been contacted just days before the scheduled deportation by her abusive ex-husband, his message to her was simple – I know you’re coming, I’ll be waiting to kill you.

11 of those due to be deported on that night are still in the country. Three of them have leave to remain. Two have been found to have been victims of human trafficking, something which would have never come to light were that flight not stopped.

It took a jury just seven and a half hours of deliberating over three days to convict us of an offence under the Aviation and Maritime security act 1990, which carries with it a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

This was the first instance that this little known piece of legislation, brought in after the Lockerbie bombing, has been used in a protest case and marks a significant escalation by the state. Originally charged with Aggravated Trespass, Criminal Damage and a Stansted Airport By-Law, the charge was changed several months after the action, by express permission of the Attorney General.

We are due to be sentenced in the week beginning February 4. Today (January 8), an appeal is being lodged to overturn our conviction and clear our names. It’s an appeal that some of my co-defendants could be fighting from jail.

There are so many things to say about this action, the experience of being on trial, and then being convicted. Many of them have been said, in much more articulate and eloquent twirls and turns than I could attempt. Some of them, we’re still not allowed to talk about – good sense and reporting restrictions make sure of that.

But, one thing that we rarely talk about is the strain, the stress, and the pain of the experience of being convicted of an offence you know you didn’t commit.

There is nothing that can ever prepare you for calling your mum after that conviction. The pain in her every word as she swallows sob after after sob, desperate to know what she can do to make it better, but knowing that there isn’t anything. Nothing that will ever get you close to being ready to watch the horror chisel itself into the faces of your co-defendants and your legal team, one guilty sentence read after another. There are no ‘how-to guides’ for dealing with friends, colleagues, or lovers as one by one, around you, the strain starts to take its toll on them and your relationships with them.

“We are 15 people, all with the right to live and reside in this country. We are 15 people with networks around us, able to support us through some of the most testing and trying times in our lives... That cannot be said for everyone facing down this government”

I’ve only cried twice since I heard the word ‘guilty’ being read out after my name. The first was in the dock. As seconds unravelled themselves into what seemed like an eternity I looked up and saw my solicitor sat in the benches in front of us, head in hands. A few seats away from me in the dock, I saw my co-defendant Emma slouched down over her heavily pregnant stomach, her body convulsing as she sobbed. Britain is one of the only countries that splits up a mother and a newborn baby if that child is born before the mother is sent to prison. The tears stung as they fell from my eyes, as I considered what the words echoing from the jury box truly meant.

The second time was on the raised banks outside the Home Office, the next day. In less than 24 hours from first putting out the call, around 1,500 people stood demonstrating with us against our conviction. One by one, speakers stood and condemned the conviction. Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, spoke alongside journalists, politicians, activists and, perhaps the most humbling of all, those who have fought detention and deportation from the inside. It was a moment like no other I’ve experienced in my life – intense gratitude and, to a certain extent, relief, knowing that behind us, there were people ready to get up and be counted. It was a feeling that could only find release through my tear glands and one that I’m not sure I’ll ever come close to capturing in written form.

And I guess right there, in that moment, the saddest and most upsetting part of this whole affair played out.

We are 15 people, all with the right to live and reside in this country. We are 15 people with networks around us, ready, willing and, most importantly, able to support us through some of the most testing and trying times in our lives. People who have raised money so we could live while unable to work on trial. People who’ve reached out, who’ve campaigned and agitated on our behalf – often they’ve been people with an incredible platform from which to do so.

That cannot be said for everyone facing down this government.

I know I speak for each of the 15 when I say that we are humbled and awestruck by the support we’ve received. But, as we stood there held in love, up to 3,500 people across the country were sat in detention centres, awaiting their fate, with not even a fraction of the same platform.

Two weeks to the day after that demonstration was Christmas day. Many of us spent it with our families. Some of our number spent it considering whether it might be the last Christmas they spend with that family for a while.

On that day, in the English Channel, around 70 desperate people boarded dinghies, and in one instance, a rowing boat, risking their lives in an attempt to reach the relative safety and security of Britain. In the days following, home secretary Sajid Javid consistently misdirected the public around asylum law and the UK’s domestic and international legal obligations, favouring instead dog whistle sensationalism and the deployment of the Navy.  

“As the 15 of us prepare for the next stage of our fight, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that it should have been the Home Office on trial”

Some miles from the channel, at Brook House detention centre, Otis Bolamu sat awaiting his fate. A charity volunteer living in Swansea, Otis had escaped the Democratic Republic of Congo after being accused by the government of being an opposition spy. Despite the very real threat of assassination, his deportation was scheduled for Christmas Day after he was grabbed in a 4am home raid. Following a public outcry, his deportation was stayed, but his life still hangs in the balance.

In Accra, Ghana, former NHS nurse Dean Ablakwa spent a second Christmas stateless after being deported in June 2017. A British citizen, Ablakwa was born in east London but spent his childhood in Ghana after a tragic accident killed both his parents when he was five. He returned to the UK age 18 and worked for a decade as an NHS nurse, before being deported due to a series of increasingly horrific twists and turns, which left him attempting to deal with a callous and uncaring Home Office.

Since our action, the Windrush scandal has put a spotlight on an immigration system that is, at best, unfit for purpose and, at worst, systemically racist, brutal, and barely legal.

As the 15 of us prepare for the next stage of our fight, it has becoming clearer and clearer that it should have been the Home Office on trial. It’s an institution that acts with utter disregard for the rights or the humanity of those it so emphatically whisks out of their homes and communities, locking them away indefinitely or transporting them to places where they face violence, persecution, torture, and death.

The actions that we took at Stansted on that evening were ones taken out of necessity. To try and save the lives of those we knew to be at risk. They are not actions we could ever take again.

The strain has been unspeakable. It’s torn relationships and lives apart. It’s a trauma we’ll be reliving and excavating for years to come. But, under the most intense pressure, the hardest rock is formed. We move forward with our resolves hardened like diamonds, ready to fight alongside those facing the sharpest end of this hostile environment, until justice is truly done.