On Monday a group of fifteen people will appear in court in Chelmsford, charged with terrorism offences. Their crime? Blocking the take-off of a plane deporting people from Britain against their will. The maximum sentence? Life in prison.
The plane in question was a charter flight set to remove 57 people in a mass deportation in March last year. For many of us in Britain, mass deportations of this style are something we know little or nothing of – and that’s no coincidence. These secret flights don’t carry regular passengers, just deportees and double their number in private security guards. The flights take off late at night from undisclosed locations, hiding them from public view.
The process isn’t just secretive – it is brutal and legally dubious too. Just last year the Supreme Court found that the “deport first, appeal later” policy was unlawful. The personal stories of those facing deportation, meanwhile, are shocking. Many are sent to countries where they have no family – sometimes after many years building a life in Britain, torn apart from close family here. People like William (not his real name) who had been a resident in the UK for 14 years, and held in detention for over six months before being set for deportation earlier this year. His youngest daughter is eight years old and regularly wakes up from nightmares where she is separated from her Dad.
Others are LGBT+ people who face persecution in the country they are being sent to – like Abbey Kyeyune, who fled Uganda after his family members discovered that he was having a relationship with another man, and was then threatened with deportation from Britain.
An astounding 41 per cent of immigration rulings are overturned on appeal, casting serious doubt over the Home Office’s ability to make fair decisions, and making it doubly appalling to see people dragged away from their families, handcuffed and forcibly strapped into plane seats.
In this context, it is easy to see why people are protesting against mass deportation – from writing to their MPs, to protesting outside the Home Office and, yes, taking non-violent direct action. People took to the tarmac and blocked a plane leaving Stansted in March last year because they felt they had no other route to stop this injustice. The action took place on a parking bay far away from the main runways and people going on holiday, with the activists dressed in bright pink, to ensure that they were visible.
Those involved are facing trumped up charges from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), using the threat of life in prison under the Aviation and Maritime Security Act. This law, which was designed to protect strategic sites such as ports and airports, has never before been targeted at activists. Indeed the only record to my knowledge of it being used concerns a helicopter pilot who had flown too close to a control tower in the context of a dispute with an airport’s owner.
It is hard to understand why the CPS is using this obscure law to prosecute these protesters. But I worry about the potential political motivations behind their decision, too. Are the authorities threatening disproportionate sentences to scare off future protests – and to allow the government’s deportation regime to continue unhindered?
What I do know is that the threat of jail for those who peacefully put their bodies on the line to stop the forced removal of people from Britain is a profound overreaction that should be reviewed immediately.
This is not the first time that the establishment has threatened peaceful people with jail terms – and the actions of those who took to the tarmac at Stansted follows in the footsteps of many brave people who have put their bodies in the way of state violence. As Margaret Mead famously said, we should “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.
Whatever happens over the course of the next few weeks’ trial, I have no doubt that history will absolve the Stansted defendants – and condemn Britain’s brutal use of mass deportation.
Caroline Lucas is the co-leader of the Green Party
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