Britain's nuclear arsenal is 'illegal'

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The Independent Online

The legality of Britain's nuclear arsenal was called into question yesterday when a Scottish judge ruled that three women who broke into and caused £80,000 of damage to a nuclear base acted lawfully.

The legality of Britain's nuclear arsenal was called into question yesterday when a Scottish judge ruled that three women who broke into and caused £80,000 of damage to a nuclear base acted lawfully.

In a landmark decision, Sheriff Margaret Gimblett accepted their defence that Britain's Trident nuclear programme was illegal under international law and that they had been acting simply to prevent a crime.

The judgment, based on a controversial 1996 ruling by the International Court of Justice in The Hague, caused dismay in government circles. The Scottish Executive announced last night that an appeal on a point of law was being considered.

Menzies Campbell, defence spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, attacked the sheriff's directions to the jury as "plainly wrong". Mr Campbell said that Sheriff Courts were only at an intermediate level in Scottish law, adding: "This issue will have to go the High Court which has the ultimate responsibility in criminal law matters in Scotland."

After the ruling, the jury at Greenock Sheriff Court was ordered to acquit the women of three charges of maliciously damaging equipment at Faslane naval base near Lochgoilhead, Argyll. Angela Zelter, 48, Ellen Moxley, 63, and Bodil Ulla Roder, 42, walked free to cheers at the end of a four-and-a-half week trial. They were arrested after boarding a barge that was part of the Trident installation.

Sheriff Gimblett said: "Yesterday I made it clear that the courts do not allow crimes to be committed to prevent other crimes except in very special circumstances. There were such circumstances in this case." However, she warned the women not to believe that they might be similarly treated if they took further direct action.

Richard Plender, QC, an expert in international law, said he was surprised by the Greenock ruling. He said advisory opinions of the International Court of Justice are not binding and they only affect the relationship between countries, not between an individual and the state. A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Defence said the Government was "confident" that its nuclear policy was legal under international law.

However, the Greenock decision will be seen as giving the green light to further direct action against British nuclear bases and a flood of appeals against convictions of activists.

Speaking after the verdict, Ms Zelter said the ruling was a turning point, and called for a full independent inquiry into the legality of Britain's nuclear deterrent arsenal.