“It must be recalled that this is all taking place against the background of an inhumane immigration policy that is acknowledged to be openly hostile.”
Leading Northern Irish politicians, human rights groups, academics, journalists and activists have expressed their “deep concern and disagreement” with Monday’s ruling against fifteen human rights activists who “acted to stop a brutal, secretive and barely legal deportation flight” at Stansted airport in March 2017.
Known as the ‘Stansted 15’, they have been convicted of ‘endangering an aerodrome’ under the Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990 – a terrorism related law. The letter condemns the use of this draconian legislation against peaceful protestors, stating it “is grossly disproportionate and a clear abuse of power.” Previous actions, for example by environmental activists, at UK airports were all only charged with aggravated trespass and given non-custodial sentences.
Over 300 public figures have signed the open letter including much of the Labour front bench, filmmaker Ken Loach, activist Owen Jones and writer Naomi Klein. It calls for the Stansted 15 to be spared prison and calls on “the UK government to end its inhumane hostile environment policies and to end its barely legal and shameful practice of deportation charter flights.”
The Stansted 15 were accused by the government of putting the safety of the airport and passengers at risk, a charge rejected by all 15 defendants. The trial followed a peaceful action which stopped a chartered deportation flight from taking off in March 2017. The activists have said they acted to prevent human rights abuses from taking place.
Charter flight removals and deportations are one of the most worrying aspects of the UK’s asylum and immigration process. Shielded from public oversight, with information protected from freedom of information requests, these ‘ghost flights’ forcibly remove people en masse from the UK. As is common with charter flights, many who were on the grounded flight were still fighting their cases. Everybody seeking the right to remain in the UK faces significant obstacles to establishing their legal rights. Those subject to charter flight removal and deportation have even less access to justice.
Several people due to be deported that day have been able to continue to their legal cases, and some of succeed in winning their right to remain.
Responding to the verdict in a statement the Stansted 15 said:
“We are guilty of nothing more than intervening to prevent harm. The real crime is the government’s cowardly, inhumane and barely legal deportation flights and the unprecedented use of terror law to crack down on peaceful protest. We must challenge this shocking use of draconian legislation, and continue to demand an immediate end to these secretive deportation charter flights and a full independent public inquiry into the government’s ‘hostile environment’.”
The letter has received substantial support from Northern Ireland, including civil rights activist Bernadette McAliskey, four Sinn Fein MPs, Hillsborough campaigner and Queen’s professor Phil Scraton, Regional Secretary of UNISON NI Patricia McKeown, and the journalists Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney, who themselves recently faced arrest for their work on the ‘No Stone Unturned’ documentary into collusion.
Human rights activist Bernadette McAliskey, who heads up Dungannon based community development organisation, South Tyrone Empowerment Programme (STEP), said:
“The government practice defining as ‘terrorism’ to include ‘ peaceful disruption of government-sponsored breaches of human rights’ needs to be challenged. This tactic underpinned the government’s military action in Derry City on Sunday 1972 and fuelled 30 years of political violence. Stopping inhumane deportation is the solution, not demonising and criminalising decent people.”
Ansleme Shima, the Chair of the NI Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers (NICRAS) said his organisation signed the letter as they “support peaceful protest as a human right and stands against a hostile immigration system.”
The defendants could now face up to life in prison. Sentencing will take place in February.
Colin Harvey, Professor of Human Rights at Queen’s University Belfast said: ‘This case is profoundly shocking and should give us all genuine cause for concern about the impact on the human right to protest. It must be recalled that this is all taking place against the background of an inhumane immigration policy that is acknowledged to be openly hostile. It is vital to stand with human rights defenders in difficult and challenging times like this.’
This piece originally appeared on Slugger O Toole.
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