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Comedian on trial for £80 damage to bus

The campaigning television comedian Mark Thomas appeared in court yesterday for the beginning of a two-day trial accused of causing £80 worth of damage to a minivan during an arms protest.

The campaigning television comedian Mark Thomas appeared in court yesterday for the beginning of a two-day trial accused of causing £80 worth of damage to a minivan during an arms protest.

Mr Thomas, who has long targeted the international arms trade in his Channel 4 show, The Mark Thomas Comedy Product, pleaded not guilty to two counts of damaging the vehicle which was carrying delegates from BAE Systems to the Defence Systems Exhibitions International (DSEI) in London's Docklands last September.

Accompanied by three fellow protesters, Mr Thomas chained himself to the underside of the minibus as it was leaving the Tower Thistle Hotel in London by means of a cycle lock hung around his neck.

Martin Huseyin, representing the four men, told Stratford magistrates' court that, while they do not deny staging the protest ,there was no evidence linking them to a damaged roll bar. A police vehicle examiner, PC Graham Pattison, who inspected the vehicle on the day of the protest, said that, in his opinion the damage to the anti-roll bar could have been caused by handcuffs, a chain and the D-Lock used by the protesters. Mr Huseyin suggested the damage might also have been caused by large objects flying up from the road. He added that the charge of causing economic damage to the owner of the minibus was "a hypothetical loss - we would submit that that's simply not sufficient". In any event, said Mr Huseyin, it was "rather stretching it to described the scratches to the anti-roll bar as damage." The driver of the minibus, Shachar Ely, told the court he was "angry and upset" by the protest.

He described how, on the morning of 12 September last year, he was forced to stop the bus shortly after 8.20am by protesters who told him that some of their number had attached themselves to the back of the vehicle. He said he kept the engine running "to bring them some fumes because I thought I was being hijacked." Police officers were called to the scene from the exhibition.

In a statement read out to the court, Inspector Paul Thornton said: "I spoke to the people underneath the bus and asked them what their intention was. They said to stay there as long as possible. I asked them who was their spokesperson or leader. They replied: 'I am Spartacus.'" The four were arrested on suspicion of causing criminal damage and charged at Charing Cross Police Station.

PC Mark Dodds, who arrested Mr Thomas, said the demeanour of the protesters was "polite" and described the atmosphere as "friendly". Graham Blake, the owner of the bus, who was later called to the scene, said it was difficult to quantify the economic loss, but that he could have missed out on some £250 worth of business while the minibus was out of service.

Bruce Kent, vice-president of CND, testified to Mr Thomas's good character as did Lord Avebury, Mark Muller, the vice-chairman of the Bar Human Rights Committee, and Karim Yildiz, director of the Kurdish Human Rights Project.

Mr Thomas, who created a unique blend of stand-up comedy and investigative journalism in his Channel 4 show, is a long standing critic of the international arms trade.

Two years ago, in "How to Become an Arms Dealer in Eight Days", he showed how easy it was to break the arms embargo on Zimbabwe.

He and his team also infiltrated the Athens Arms Fair, posing as a PR company.

Other targets of his wide-ranging satire include human rights abuses, the UK's laws on asylum and immigration, and the misuse of power by multi-national companies.

The DSEI, which takes place annually in September, is a major focus for anti-weapons campaigners. Up to 2,000 police officers were present at last year's exhibition. Musical protests have already begun against DSEI 2004.