Stansted 15’s Melanie Strickland speaks out after conviction quashed

The Stansted 15

Walthamstow resident Melanie Strickland, part of the Stansted 15, on the verdict quashing the group’s terror-related conviction…

Nearly four years ago, I was part of a group of 15 that peacefully stopped a deportation flight. Last Friday, we heard to our great relief that the ‘terror’ convictions we received for that direct action were quashed.

That night, we had walked to the apron where the plane was being prepped by the catering staff, each of us dressed in pink high vis and pink hats, with jumpers that read ‘mass deportations kill’. We erected a tripod and unfurled a banner that said ‘no-one is illegal’. We ‘locked on’ in metal tubes around the tripod and around the nose wheel of the plane.

No-one interacted with us until we were in position, and the only damage was to the perimeter fence, which the CPS estimated to be £150. The action was fundamentally peaceful, in contrast to the menace we successfully stopped that night at the airport.

It subsequently emerged with the Windrush scandal that the Home Office had been operating an unlawful deportation regime for many years. A regime that wrongly targeted people – many of whom had built their lives here – wrenching people from their loved ones, homes and communities and unlawfully pushing them out of the country.

Despite protests from Amnesty International and the United Nations, we were put on trial under section 1(2) (b) of the Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990. The trial lasted two-and-a-half months in late 2018.

On conviction, the sentence could have been life in prison. We had to wait an agonising two months from the date of conviction to the sentencing to see whether we’d be sent to prison and for how long. The cost of all these legal proceedings would have been immense.

The judgment quashing our convictions is welcome, but we are outraged that we were ever prosecuted with this offence in the first place. It was totally disproportionate and I believe our prosecution was intended to intimidate us and other protestors.

15 activists enter Stansted Airport and block a chartered deportation flight 28th of March 2017, Stansted Airport, Stansted, United Kingdom. The activists locked themselves together near the plane in a secluded part of the airport. The flight was scheduled for Nigeria and Ghana to take 57 deportees, some of whom risking imprisonment and possible death in their home country according to the activists research. A number of the fifty-seven scheduled on the flight that night are still in the UK pending case hearings and at least two has since been allowed to stay in the UK. Without the Stansted 15’s intervention this would not have happened. The 15 activists were found guilty in December 2018 and sentenced February 2019. Twelve were given community orders, three were given a suspended jail term sentences.

The whole trial process and conviction was a serious punishment in itself – preventing us from work during the long trial, and the conviction in some cases effectively ‘blacklisting’ us from securing employment.

It has taken years to clear our names. The Court of Appeal judgment states that “the appellants should not have been prosecuted for the extremely serious offence… because their conduct did not satisfy the various elements of the offence, in truth, there was no case to answer”.

We get no compensation for the extreme stress of these proceedings, the loss of income during the trial and unpaid work we have done as the sentence for our wrongful conviction.

The implications of this ruling go beyond the defendants in this case. Other protestors have started to be prosecuted under this terror-related legislation, including Extinction Rebellion activists, who took action against the Silvertown Tunnel in London. Hopefully, their charges will not be continued.

Despite the huge consequences for all of us, our action on that fateful day had a lasting legacy. Eleven of the 60 people who were meant to be deported that night remain in the country. So, I have no regrets.

Many more may have done so but for the Home Office manoeuvring to charter another plane the day after our action. It is only a matter of luck that the Home Office could only charter a smaller plane that day.

It has been a source of strength and support for us to remain in contact with some of the people from the flight – a number of whom have now secured their legal right to be here having won their appeals, including trafficking survivors and parents of dependent children. Our experience of having our act of solidarity criminalised under terror legislation, plus having to fight for years, gave us a better insight into what those being criminalised by the hostile environment experience every day.

We didn’t go to prison in the end, but every year tens of thousands of people are locked in detention, where they can remain indefinitely, away from their children and families. It is impossible to plan when you don’t know what will happen to you from month to month or year to year. The stress puts a great strain on all your relationships and being subject to an unjust, unfair legal system is humiliating and disempowering. It is wrong that our neighbours and friends of insecure immigration status are subject to this.

People who have experienced detention are resilient people. Many people who have returned to the community from detention have had to fight hard to secure their release. They deserve our solidarity and support.

One way we can do this is by supporting Waltham Forest Migrant Action and the Waltham Forest Migrant Centre. Another important local campaign is the fight against Warehouse K in Newham. This will be a huge reporting centre for people of insecure immigration status if the Home Office gets its way.

Given the government’s escalation of violence against people of insecure immigration status, our struggle must be organised.