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The U.K.’s Prosecution of Peaceful Protestors Is Raising Fears Over Anti-Terror Laws

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It was a chilly night in late March 2017 when the fifteen activists broke into Stansted Airport, one of the main air transport hubs outside London. They used wire-cutters to break through a perimeter fence before making their way toward a Boeing 767 parked in stand 505, in a remote part of the airport. On board were 60 men and women about to be deported back to West Africa.

To stop the government-chartered jet taking off, four of the activists used plastic tubes and expanding foam to secure themselves to the plane’s landing gear while the rest did the same beneath a tripod securing the port-side wing. The group wore pink hats and sang songs to keep the cold at bay. A large pink sign they had smuggled in with them bearing the words ‘no one is illegal’ billowed in the chill early spring air. For ten hours they sat there while airport security staff tried to dislodge them. The flight was canceled.

That the fifteen would be arrested was beyond doubt, but none expected a serious conviction. The nine Black Lives Matter protesters who occupied a runway at City Airport, London in 2016 had all been let off with non-custodial sentences. So it came as something of a surprise when, in December, the Stansted 15, as they have since been dubbed by the media, were convicted of terrorism-related offenses carrying potential life sentences. Amnesty International called the decision “a case of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut”.

On Feb. 6, after seventeen months on bail, the protestors discovered they would be spared jail. Three were given suspended sentences, and twelve will carry out community service. Yet the convictions will continue to affect their lives, limiting which countries they can visit as well as their ability to get a mortgage or take out a loan.

Now, human rights groups and experts are warning that the treatment of the Stansted 15 sets a chilling precedent in the use of laws put in place to tackle terrorism to crack down on legitimate and peaceful protests. “The very values [counter-terrorism laws] are ostensibly created to defend – democracy and its core civic and political freedoms – are instead being eroded by their use,” says Karma Nabulsi, Professor in Politics and International Relations at Oxford University. Ruth Potts, one of the fifteen handed a community service order on Wednesday, put it more simply: “The future of peaceful protest is in jeopardy,” she told TIME.

A zero tolerance approach

The U.K. has a long and proud history of civil disobedience. The Suffragettes, British civil rights activists, gay-rights demonstrators – each of these movements rallied and sometimes agitated for change to unequal or unjust laws. The Equal Franchise Act 1928, the Sexual Offenses Act 1967, which decriminalized homosexuality, and the Race Relations Act 1965 stand as testament to the efforts of radicals who have fought and sometimes died for their rights in the past hundred years.

In the past, judges have recognized this and upheld the principle that a sentence should be proportionate to the gravity of the offense. In 2006, for example, the presiding judge in a case involving a protest against the Iraq war asserted that where demonstrators act with a sense of proportion and do not commit violent acts, magistrates should impose sentences that take this into account. “It is the mark of a civilised community,” said, Lord Hoffman, “that it can accommodate protests and demonstrations of this kind”.

But in the last year, that precedent has been ignored more and more often. In October 2018, three anti-fracking protesters became the first environmental campaigners to be imprisoned in the U.K. since 1932. At the court of appeals the decision was overturned and the prisoners released; handing down the judgement, the three judges called the initial custodial sentence “manifestly excessive”.

Like the anti-frackers, the Stansted 15 were initially charged with aggravated trespass, the maximum sentence for which is 3 months in prison. It was three months after their initial arrest, in June, when they found out the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) was considering upping the charges; later in the summer the group were officially charged with ‘endangering an airport’ under Section 1 of the Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990. The arcane law was brought in after the Lockerbie bombing in 1988 to implement an international convention against acts of terrorism.

“We were in shock. Devastated,” Potts says. “What we were charged with just doesn’t fit what we did in any way. Nothing that we did that night put anyone, or anything, in danger.”

Raj Chada, one of the lawyers representing the group, says the charge was unpredecented. “I’ve done this for 20 years and I’ve never seen a case with a charge that carries a 3-month maximum prison sentence changed, with no new facts or material having become available, to a potential life imprisonment. It’s remarkable.”

Chada believes the Conservative Party-led government set out to make an example of the Stansted 15. The law used to prosecute them requires consent from the U.K. attorney general, to ensure it is not misused or misapplied. In this instance, the check clearly failed, he says. “Only appropriate cases are meant to be brought before this legislation, and this is clearly not an appropriate case, so why was it brought? And why did the attorney general okay it? One can only conclude that it was used to deter protests of this type.”

Gracie Bradley, who covers anti-terror legislation for rights organization Liberty, agrees. “The unprecedented charges signal a zero tolerance approach toward meaningful resistance to the inhumanity of state immigration policies,” she says. (TIME reached out to the then-attorney general Jeremy Wright for comment, but received no response).

Deport first, appeal later

The Stansted 15 staged their protest to expose the treatment of asylum seekers and other immigrants by the British government. The U.K. remains the only country in Europe where immigrants can be indefinitely detained; last year, around 26,000 people were held in immigration detention centres across the U.K. Of these, 10,000 people were removed from the country — among them legitimate asylum seekers deported under a so-called “deport first, appeal later’ policy that was ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court in June. “We as a country are shackling people in the dead of night, throwing them in planes and deporting them before they’ve had the chance to appeal,” says Ben Smoke, at 28 the youngest of the fifteen.

The deportations typically happen on late-night flights on commercial airliners chartered by the government. The flight stopped by the Stansted 15 was one of them. “There were at least three people on the plane who were at serious risk were they to be deported,” says Smoke. “There was a lesbian woman on board who’d been forced into a marriage in Nigeria but escaped to the U.K. – her ex-husband had told her he would kill her if she returned.” (The Home Office did not respond to a request for comment on this story.)

The case of the Stansted 15 attracted enormous attention from the media and an outpouring of support from activists and lawmakers in the opposition Labour Party. Five days before the group were due be sentenced, UN human rights experts sent a letter to the British government voicing concern over “the application of disproportional charges for what appears to be the exercise of the rights to peaceful and non-violent protest and freedom of expression.”

On Wednesday, there was an almost carnival atmosphere in the street outside the court house in Chelmsford, England as the fifteen waited for the sentence to be handed down. Environmentalists, members of women’s rights groups, anti-racism campaigners and civil liberty advocates gave speeches, while old ladies nudged through the gathering crowd handing out ginger nut biscuits and cups of tea. When the news was announced, the crowd broke out into wild applause.

The protest itself succeeded in changing the lives of some of the people aboard the jet. Of the 60 people due to be deported that night, 11 are still in the U.K. One person has been issued with a residency card as a relative of a European Economic Area citizen, meaning they should never have been threatened with deportation in the first place, and two others have been granted temporary leave to remain. Yet Potts struggles to feel like the group has made a lasting impact. Hours before the sentence was announced, a plane carrying 29 deportees to Jamaica took off from Birmingham City airport. “There’s a man whose been told he can parent his children over Skype,” she said.

Asked whether he would do it all again – the airport break-in, the arrest, the nine-week trial – Smoke sounds ambivalent, but insists that what he did was necessary. “How else do we stop the inhumanity and barbarity of this government? I’m worried about the people who didn’t receive the support we did, who are on the receiving end of the hostile environment policy, who are facing this government alone.”

“And if the government continues to punish acts of dissent,” he says, “their situation won’t improve any time soon.”

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