One of the largest arms fairs in the world, Defence Security and Equipment International (DSEI), is held at the ExCeL Centre in London every other year, drawing in 1,110 exhibitors of death machines and over 30,000 buyers. It is heavily supported by the government and attracts sellers and buyers from around the world. At these arms fairs, illegal weapons have been sold, and weapons have been sold with UK government approval despite the knowledge that they will be used for war crimes. Many people and organisations, including the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) and Amnesty International, have condemned the arms fair and called for it to be shut down, or at the very least properly policed.
No arrests or convictions at any of the fairs have taken place, and none of the criminality has been detected by the government, police, National Crimes Agency or HMRC: all the (widely- documented) illegality has been detected by private individuals, and action has only been taken when it has been reported in Parliament – at which point the illegal organisations have simply been evicted from the fair.
Last year, several hundred protestors turned up each day while the fair was being set up. Over the course of three days, 11 of the protestors were arrested while trying to prevent vehicles getting into the fair. Some locked themselves to vehicles, gates, or each other, and others, including myself, lay in the road in front of a tank to stop it being delivered.
On 9 September, Angela Ditchfield, a Green Party candidate in Cambridge, locked herself to an armoured vehicle, and refused to move. Once cut free from the vehicle, she was arrested and charged.
On 10 September, I went to protest with a group called Academics Against Arms, which had organised a series of seminars, when a tank went past. A group of us, led by Isa Al-Aali, ran down to stop the tank by laying down in front of it to prevent it being delivered to the arms fair and sold for killing civilians in Yemen or the West Bank or Gaza or some other place where human rights are being abused.
Four of us were arrested, taken to a police station, held in cells for several hours, charged and released. We were then joined for trial by seven other people who had chained themselves to gates, armed vehicles or each other. We were all charged with ‘wilful obstruction of the highway without lawful excuse’. With a couple pleading guilty to avoid the stress of court and one having charges dropped, eight of us ended up in court.
There was no dispute over what we had done; the issue was whether what we had done was illegal. Our contention was that we were working to prevent much greater crimes like the sale of torture equipment and preventing the use of these arms being used for crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Each of us explained that we had taken the actions we had to try to prevent the far greater crime. As I put it: “I thought, I can’t just stand by, I’ve got to try and prevent a crime from taking place, I’ve got to uphold the rule of law because the government and its agencies, the police force and arms control bodies and so on, were clearly not doing their job.” I added: “I don’t think there was anything less I could have done.” Some of the other defendants made clear that, to them, morality was more important than the law, and they believed it necessary to stop the arms fair anyhow.
The court heard powerful evidence from three expert witnesses: Oliver Sprague from Amnesty International with responsibility for the charity’s work on arms control and policing and Kat Hobbs from the Campaign Against the Arms Trade. They both described how, in each and every DSEI arms fair up to 2015, illegal products including torture equipment, cluster bombs and land mines had been found and that weapons were being sold to countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel, which would use them for war crimes or crimes against humanity. They also gave evidence that the authorities, including the police, HMRC and the Serious Crimes Agency, had never found any of these offences (they have always been uncovered by peace campaigners or journalists) and that no legal action had ever been taken against any of the real criminals – the arms dealers.
Finally, Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, from the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, described the situation there, in part as one of my co-defendants, Isa Al-Aali, had been a victim of torture in Bahrain and had been attempting to stop any more weapons going there to be used against peaceful protestors.
We then argued that we were using reasonable force to try to prevent some of the most serious crimes that there are, and as such our behaviour was reasonable.
The judge, Mr Justice Angus Hamilton, accepted our argument, and in his judgement said: “The court has been presented with clear, credible and largely unchallenged evidence from three experts that criminal wrongdoing had occurred at past DSEI exhibitions involving the sale of arms to countries which then used those arms against civilian populations and the sale of items that were inherently unlawful such as cluster munitions and items designed for torture and inappropriate restraint. There was, as a result, a compelling inference that such activities would also take place at the 2015 DSEI exhibition.
“The court was also presented with clear, credible and largely unchallenged evidence that such criminal activities are not being properly investigated and, where appropriate, prosecuted.”
As a result, we were acquitted on the grounds that we were preventing crime. A later attempt to appeal the decision by the Crown Prosecution Service was refused by a district judge on the basis that it was ‘frivolous’ and ‘misconceived’. However, the work goes on to expose the evil of the arms trade and prevent DSEI 2017 from happening.
As we said at the time of our acquittal: “We do not believe that we should have been on trial this week and denounce the UK government’s complicity and actions in supporting the arms trade, and in perpetuating war and repression around the world. We oppose the sale of arms based on corporate greed and profit and seek radical change.
“We come from the UK, Bahrain, Belgium, Chile and Peru in the belief that as the arms trade takes place at a global scale, our resistance has to be global and it should have no borders.
“Over the week, we have put DSEI and the arms trade on trial, and we have proven them to be illegitimate. Our only regret is that we didn’t succeed in shutting down DSEI.
“Our thoughts are with the people who suffer as a result of the arms trade and the survivors of repressive regimes, torture, war and conflict. We call on more people to join us in our efforts to shut down DSEI 2017 and take collective action to end the arms trade.”