On Monday 10th December, 15 non-violent protestors learned they were facing potential life imprisonment after being found guilty of a terror-related offence. The group, who have become known as the Stansted 15, cut through a perimeter fence at the Essex airport on 28th March 2017 and secured themselves to the nose wheel and wing of a plane to block a flight from taking off.
The UK government had chartered the plane to deport 60 migrants to Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone. The flight was eventually cancelled. Eleven of the passengers are still in the UK and one, a man with two children and a pregnant partner in the UK, has been granted the right to remain. The activists – nine women and six men aged between 27 and 44 – argue this proves their actions were justified and had stopped people from being wrongfully and, in some cases, illegally deported. At least two of the people due to be on the flight are victims of human trafficking.
Regardless, the Stansted 15 were last week found guilty of endangering the safety of the airport under the 1990 Aviation and Maritime Security Act, a law passed in response to the 1988 Lockerbie bombing (a terrorism tragedy in which 270 people were killed).
The group were initially charged with aggravated trespass – which carries a maximum three-month custodial sentence – but this was changed later to the far more serious terrorism-related offence. (The judge told the jury to "disregard" the defendants' evidence to support the defence that they acted to stop human rights abuses and instead consider whether there was a "real and material" risk to the airport, the Guardian reported.)
The verdict has been condemned by human rights groups and members of the public alike. Amnesty International called it "a crushing blow for human rights in the UK" and described the "harsh charges" as "unheard of in the UK". The organisation has launched a campaign, urging people to send the group letters of solidarity. More than 10.5k people have done so thus far.
Meanwhile, #Stansted15 trended on Twitter in the verdict's aftermath and people around the UK have demonstrated in support – including outside the Home Office in London, in Manchester, Brighton, Cardiff, Leicester, Glasgow and elsewhere. Public figures including MPs, actor Emma Thompson and author Philip Pullman have also expressed support. Money is being raised to fund their appeal, too. The 15 are members of End Deportations, which campaigns against "the brutal, secretive and barely legal practice" of people being deported on charter flights, and the group is crowdfunding to pay for costs surrounding the trial. It has raised nearly £31k of the £35k target at the time of writing.
Ruth Potts, 44, a lecturer who lives in Bristol, is one of the 15 whose lives have been turned upside down by the trial and conviction. The incident was the first time she had taken direct action against charter deportation flights. Potts will be appealing against the conviction along with the rest of the group after their sentences are announced in February 2019. Ahead, she tells Refinery29 what motivated her, what really happened, and how she's coping with the threat of life in prison.
"A group of us had become increasingly concerned about the way the government’s hostile environment policy [a set of measures targeted towards undocumented people in the UK] is affecting all our lives, but particularly people of colour who are increasingly treated with suspicion in this country. We began meeting and discussing this and other issues – including the conditions in detention centres and the fact that legal aid cuts make it difficult for people who are seeking asylum to have their case fully heard – and we asked ourselves what more we could do. We found out about charter deportation flights, which are particularly brutal. They were introduced in 2001 under New Labour and have been operating ever since, but most people don’t know they’re happening. If people knew about what really happens in the deportation and detention system in this country, they’d be horrified.
If people knew about what really happens in the deportation and detention system in this country, they’d be horrified.
We chose that one particular flight because we had read testimonies of people who were facing deportation [on the flight] though a group called Detained Voices. People with real reason to fear for their lives had they been sent to Nigeria and Ghana. There was a Ghanaian man who’d lived here for 18 years and had a wife here, and he was being sent to a country he had no ties to. He was so fearful of being sent to Ghana that he said he had wanted to take his own life.
There was a 21-year-old man whose mother and father were here, with other family members who had been killed in violence in Nigeria, and he was fearful about being sent there. Same-sex relationships are illegal in Nigeria and punishable by lengthy prison sentences in some states and by death in others. There was a lesbian woman who had been forced into an arranged marriage in Nigeria and her violent ex-husband found out she was being deported and threatened to kill her if she returned.
We’d planned it very carefully, so that we could be effective and peaceful, but of course we were nervous. We began the chain of events – from us cutting a hole through a perimeter fence at a remote part of the airport to making our way calmly across a patch of grass to the bay where the plane was being readied and putting our blockade in place – and it worked.
Four people locked themselves around the wheel of the plane. We erected a tripod near the wing with a banner that said 'no one is illegal'. One person sat on the top of that tripod and nine of us were locked around the base of it. The point of the tripod was to ensure the protest was visible so that the airport security and police knew we were there quickly. It was important we were seen and that people knew we were there, and that we communicated what we were doing and why to the authorities as quickly as possible.
The atmosphere was quite lighthearted and friendly. It was treated on the night as exactly what it was – a peaceful protest. One of the people locked on the wheel had been chewing gum and it was about to get stuck in her hair, and a police officer picked it out of her mouth to stop it falling into her hair. Another of the police negotiators had a chat with one of us about walking in the Lake District.
Our solicitor was shocked when our charge – which was originally aggravated trespass – was changed overnight, just as we were approaching the date of our trial. It’s the first time in his legal career, which spans over 20 years, that somebody's charge has changed overnight from something with a maximum possible sentence of three months in prison to a charge that carries a maximum of life in prison. We still don’t know the basis on which the decision was changed. And then we began a long 10-week trial on 1st October this year.
The trial was a horrific process, because you have the possibility of life in prison hanging over you.
The trial was a horrific process, because you have the possibility of life in prison hanging over you. There was no way anything we did that night put anyone or anything in danger, and yet we’re having to answer to this charge of endangerment. One of my co-defendants is due to give birth this Saturday, so she was obviously hugely concerned about the implications for her of being on trial. Some of the other defendants’ jobs have been threatened; some are freelance and have been unable to work. It’s had a profound impact on all our lives and it’s obviously been a huge strain on people who love us.
It was a horrific and really traumatic process, but we’re acutely aware that the situation is much worse for people in detention, who don’t have access to their legal rights and are held without a time limit. What we went through is nothing compared to what people go through every day in this country. When the Home Office makes decisions on asylum claims, almost half of the decisions it makes denying people the right to stay in this country are overturned on appeal. The government is wrongfully deporting people. We’re all determined to continue campaigning to end charter flight deportations.
We’re all determined to continue campaigning to end charter flight deportations.
After our sentences are announced in February, the next step is appealing the conviction. We won’t know until February what the sentences are. The judge has indicated that it’s unlikely to be a life sentence, so there's a sense of relief in that but nothing's certain yet, and it's still a hugely worrying time.
This law should not have been used for peaceful protestors and it sets a dangerous precedent for the right to peaceful protest in this country, which is a really important part of our democracy. When the government starts using this type of legislation, which is so concerning that Amnesty observed our trial, something is seriously wrong. We want to make sure this legislation isn’t used in this way ever again and that no one else is put through this."