UPDATE 2nd May
As expected, the CPS has now lodged an application with the magistrates court for them to “state a case” for appeal to the High Court.
In their submission, dated 29th April, they ask whether the judge, DJ Angus Hamilton, was correct in allowing a Section 3 defence (that the defendants were acting in order to prevent a crime), and therefore was right to hear from the expert witnesses (from Amnesty, Campaign Against the Arms Trade, and Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy) about the evidence of crimes committed at DSEI in previous years.
The CPS question whether the defendants were actually acting to prevent a crime, or rather to simply disrupt the arms fair and bring attention to their own conscientious objection to the arms trade. Also, whether the judge was right that their actions constituted “force” as defined in Section 3. The CPS query whether therefore the expert opinion was inadmissible, and finally they challenge whether the actions of the defendants were reasonable, as there was no immediate need to act, given that no clear crime being committed nor any criminal instantly identifiable.
ORIGINAL POST 15th April BELOW
Eight activists on trial were attempting to disrupt the DSEI Arms Fair last September as part of a week of protest actions. (https://www.stopthearmsfair.org.uk/week-of-action-round-up/)
DSEI (Defence and Security Equipment International) is held biennially at the Excel Exhibition Centre in East London. The fair is subsidised by tax-payers and promoted by the government’s UK Trade and Investment DSO (Defence and Security Organisation) which employs more than a hundred civil servants to “promote arms exports”.
Each year, the exhibition attracts large protests, and is heavily policed. While much of what goes on at the fair can be described as “lawful”, many protesters argue that the Government should not be subsidising an industry which inevitably leads to death, in the same way that Government wouldn’t subsidise the tobacco industry.
Aside from this, the main trouble with DSEI is that the Government actively invites regimes that have terrible human rights abuse records, and that since 2005, each and every DSEI exhibition has been caught out actively selling torture equipment that broke UK arms export controls, or indiscriminate weapons banned under international law. And yet, in 2015 human rights observers were barred from the exhibition.
Within this context, the eight people on trial used their bodies, variously locked on to delivery lorries, locked on to gates, or simply lying in the road, to try to prevent or delay the set-up of the exhibition and in order to prevent further such crimes being committed.
While the facts of the case were not in dispute, the defendants all plead not guilty to “wilful obstruction of the highway” on the basis that they had “lawful excuse”.
This refers to Section 3 of the Criminal Law Act 1967 (http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1967/58) which states “a person may use such force as is reasonable in the prevention of a greater crime”.
The legal arguments centred mainly around the definition of “use of force”, whether the actions of the protesters were actually aimed at preventing a crime, and the extent to which citizens have the right to take the law into their own hands.
“Use of force”: The prosecution argued that lying down in the road couldn’t be described as using force, the defence pointed out that this line of argument would throw up bizarre consequences not intended by the law, e.g. if a protester had reached into the cab of the lorry and wrestled the keys from the driver (committing an assault in the process) that this would have lawful excuse, while peacefully sitting in front of the lorry wouldn’t! Arriving at a guilty verdict on this basis would send a strange signal out to future protesters.
“Preventing crime”: The prosecution suggested the actions were designed to “raise awareness” and not to prevent crime. The defence brought in expert witnesses to describe the documented breaches of law at four previous DSEI events, and the devastating implications of those breaches in terms of torture and indiscriminate killings.
“Self help”: This was the phrase the prosecution used when people act to prevent what they perceive as crime. The suggestion was that this must be strictly limited in a functioning society to prevent vigilantism. The question was where to draw a line. If this action was OK, they suggested, what’s to stop a group blowing an aeroplane out of the sky that was delivering arms to Saudi Arabia? Allowing protesters to stop traffic just because they “think” something illegal might be going on, would, the prosecution said, lead to anarchy.
The magistrate spent a lot of time questioning the prosecution over this area, and whether the law was framed to allow subjectivity. His interpretation was that if someone’s belief was reasonable, there was no objective argument, but that even if a belief was unreasonable, if they reasonably and genuinely held it, then a judge would have subjective leeway. He proposed that in law the ‘burden of proof’ lay with the prosecution to show that no greater crime WAS being committed and that the lorry that was delayed was NOT carrying illegal weapons. One of the defendants, when asked by police if there was anything they could do to get her to move, asked them to check the vehicle for illegal weapons, and they refused. The defence said that the Crown must prove where the lorry was going and what it contained if they were relying on the suggestion that the defendant couldn’t have been preventing a crime because they didn’t know.
The defence pointed to the suffragette movement and the man who stood in front of tanks in Tiananmen Square as examples of Non-Violent Direct Action that were part of a rich heritage of democratic change and progress, and they argued that the action was wholly proportionate with very little “collateral damage” on innocent parties. They also argued that Section 3 (and its phrase ‘use of force’) was merely a codification of principles already enshrined in Common Law.
The magistrate gave himself the afternoon and overnight to reach the verdict announced in court this morning.
He began by stating that his decision would be based on the aspect of ‘preventing a greater crime’ alone. This might open up a possibility of an appeal by the crown on other criteria. He also said that the CPS had managed the case poorly, and that their arguments were not as coherent as he would have wished. He accepted that all the actions constituted ‘use of force’ under the intended meaning of the act. He also accepted that the expert witnesses had provided clear and credible evidence that illegal arms had been sold at DSEI and that no Government or law enforcement action had taken place to investigate or halt illegal activity. This means that he accepted the defendants had considered other means to prevent the crimes.
So, all the accused were acquitted on the defence that they had ‘lawful excuse’.
The full judgement will be released on Monday, and given that this ruling puts DSEI at significant risk of major “lawful” disruption in future, it is quite likely that the CPS may appeal the decision, but for now, the champagne corks are popping, history has been made, and the arms trade has suffered a major blow.
District Judge Angus Hamilton
CPS Caoimhe Daly