No immediate jail time for local campaigners who stopped deportation flight, reports James Cracknell
Fifteen people who stopped a deportation flight from taking off at Stansted Airport have vowed to continue their fight against “disgraceful” deportation practices.
In February 2017 the group – which includes four people from Waltham Forest – tied themselves together to block a parked plane which contained people the Home Office was sending to several countries in Africa. Of the 60 who were due to be deported, at least two have since been granted permission to remain in the UK, while others are still appealing.
The Stansted 15 were sentenced yesterday to a combined 1,700 hours of unpaid work, with three also handed nine-month jail terms, suspended for 18 months. It followed their conviction of terrorism offences under the Aviation and Maritime Security Act, the first time this law has been used against peaceful protesters.
Hundreds of people travelled to Chelmsford Crown Court on Wednesday to show their support for the protesters, with a bus even being hired to drive people there from Walthamstow.
Speaking outside court following her sentencing, Emma Hughes from Walthamstow told the Echo: “I feel massively relieved but still angry that we were still charged with this. It will have profound implications on our lives and also for our democracy and for peaceful protest. It is the Home Office that should be on trial for putting people in danger every single day.”
Like eleven of her fellow protesters, Emma was sentenced to 100 hours of unpaid work, despite having given birth to her son only five weeks ago. She said: “I am his main carer, I don’t have anyone else to do childcare during the week. The criminal justice system is not set up for the needs of new mothers.”
During sentencing, the judge said he accepted the Stansted 15 “were motivated for genuine reasons” and “have a right to demonstrate” but said that the group had caused significant disruption and put staff at the airport in danger. Custodial sentences would have been justified “in normal circumstances” but mitigating factors in the case were enough to avoid such punishment.
One of the three protesters given a suspended jail sentence was Mel Strickland, who had a prior conviction for her part in an environmental protest at Heathrow Airport. Mel is also a volunteer with Walthamstow Migrants’ Resource Centre. She told the Echo: “This is not a result to be celebrating because we have been given a harsh sentence.
“The reason we did this is for the people who face deportation. Among those on the plane we stopped we now know there were two trafficking cases and a woman subject to serious sexual violence. There is a massive number of people who don’t get justice the first time round but are later told they can stay in the country – 42% are accepted on appeal.”
The Stansted 15 defendants have been supported by thousands of people all over the country, but particularly in Waltham Forest where several of them live or have close ties. Rallies of support have been held in Walthamstow Town Square.
Rosemary Warrington, from Leytonstone, was one of dozens of local people who travelled to Chelmsford for the sentencing. She said: “We are defending the right to protest, which is under threat. It was a wholly disproportionate charge. The threat of life imprisonment for a protest is appalling.”
Mel Strickland said the support the Stansted 15 had received was “fantastic”. She added: “The friendship and fellowship has kept us together and strong, and we are determined to fight this, to clear our names, and end the ‘hostile environment’.
“The campaigning goes on, that is why we do this. People are still being deported in this way – it’s a disgrace. The rhetoric hasn’t changed, people are being snatched from their homes and targeted for deportation. We need to stop the appalling suffering and injustice of these charter flights, which is the most brutal aspect of this.
“There are immigration enforcement vans in our borough – this is something that is potentially happening to people living on our streets.”
Commenting on the Stansted 15 case, a Home Office spokesperson said: “We only return those with no legal right to remain in the UK, including foreign national offenders and failed asylum seekers. We expect people to leave the country voluntarily but, where they do not, the Home Office will seek to enforce their departure.”