Letter: “Prison sentences for Heathrow 13 activists would threaten our right to protest”
Date added: February 12, 2016
A range of high-profile signatories have sent an open letter to the Guardian, in support of the Heathrow 13, who occupied part of Heathrow’s northern runway on 13th July 2015. They say that giving the activists prison sentences would be unjust and disproportionate, for what they did – and would represent a “massive threat” to the right to peaceful protest in the UK. Those signing the letter include MPs John McDonnell and Caroline Lucas, as well as key people in Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, NEF, NUS, and a range of environmental and social campaigning organisations. The letter says “prison is an utterly disproportionate punishment, and would mark yet another example of heavy-handed treatment leading to the suppression of political dissent in the UK today.” The 13 members of “Plane Stupid” were found guilty in January of aggravated trespass and entering a security-restricted area of an aerodrome. District judge Deborah Wright said the “astronomical costs” of their action to Heathrow, with 22 flights cancelled, meant likely jail sentences on 24th February. This would be very unusual, for first offences. One of the lawyers for the Heathrow 13 said civil disobedience had a “constitutional role” to play in a democracy, and that conditional discharge was usually the starting point for this offence.
Jailing Heathrow 13 poses ‘massive threat’ to peaceful protest rights
Letter (see below) from high-profile signatories including Caroline Lucas and John McDonnell warns prison sentences would be unjust and disproportionate
By Adam Vaughan (Guardian) @adamvaughan_uk
Jailing the 13 activists who last year chained themselves on Heathrow’s northern runway in protest at the airport’s expansion would represent a “massive threat” to the right to peaceful protest in the UK, according to John McDonnell and Caroline Lucas.
In a letter to the Guardian, the shadow chancellor and Green party MP, along with the vice-president of the National Union of Students and several prominent environmentalists, warn that prison sentences for the climate campaigners would be unjust and disproportionate.
“Sending peaceful demonstrators to jail would represent a massive threat to our right to protest in the UK. Prison is an utterly disproportionate punishment, and would mark yet another example of heavy-handed treatment leading to the suppression of political dissent in the UK today,” say the signatories, which include the heads of Greenpeace UK, Friends of the Earth Scotland and the New Economics Foundation.
Thirteen members of the Plane Stupid group were found guilty in January of aggravated trespass and entering a security-restricted area of an aerodrome. The activists had hoped to win a “necessity defence”, arguing they were acting to prevent the greater harm caused by climate change.
But finding the so-called Heathrow 13 guilty, district judge Deborah Wright warned that the “astronomical costs” of their actions on 13 July 2015 meant they were almost certain to be jailed when sentenced on 24 February.
The judge told the 13 that although they were “principled people”, the seriousness of their actions meant it was “almost inevitable that you will all receive custodial sentences”.
Mike Schwarz, a lawyer from Bindmans representing nine of the 13, said that sentencing guidance recognised that civil disobedience had a “constitutional role” to play in a democracy, and that conditional discharge was usually the starting point for civil disobedience.
“There are very strong arguments to say they shouldn’t get custodial sentences,” he said, adding that it would be “exceptional” if they did.
Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh, a barrister and criminal law specialist at Matrix Chambers, told the Guardian that the typical sentence for first time offenders in such cases was a discharge or at worst a fine. “It is extremely surprising that custody has been raised as a real possibility,” she said.
Dr Graeme Hayes, a reader in political sociology at Aston University who has followed 25 years of environmental protests, recently told the Independent that prison for such an action would be “unprecedented in modern times”. Three of the activists have been been previously convicted of aggravated trespass, while the other 10 have no previous convictions.
Danni Paffard, one of the protesters, said: “To us the court’s reaction seems eerily similar to the government’s – complete agreement with the urgent warnings of climate scientists, and complete failure to let those warnings influence their decisions.
“Winning the argument and then watching those in power continue to favour vested interests over the truth is what drives people to stop arguing and start taking action – there is no need or justification for direct action when democracy is working as intended, but it so rarely does.”
In their letter to the Guardian, the signatories said they shared the protesters’ concerns over aviation expansion’s impact on climate change.
“Their judgment noted the ‘astronomical costs’ incurred by a few delayed flights. We recognise that the costs of unchecked climate change and pollution will be far higher, and far graver. This is what our government and judicial system should be cracking down on, not peaceful protest.”
Carbon emissions from European aviation alone increased 80% between 1990 and 2014, and are forecast to grow a further 45% by 2035. Governments are negotiating at UN talks this year to set the first CO2 standards for planes.
Prison sentences for Heathrow 13 activists would threaten our right to protest
Last month, 13 activists were tried in court for carrying out a peaceful protest against the expansion of Heathrow airport (Report, Opinion, 25 January, theguardian.com). They were found guilty of aggravated trespass, and await sentencing on 24 February.
We believe it would be unjust for these people to receive prison sentences for their actions.
Sending peaceful demonstrators to jail would represent a massive threat to our right to protest in the UK.
Aggravated trespass would usually incur a fine. Prison is an utterly disproportionate punishment, and would mark yet another example of heavy-handed treatment leading to the suppression of political dissent in the UK today.
We also share the concerns of these activists. Our judicial system has judged the actions of the Heathrow 13 to be criminal. Meanwhile, the aviation sector threatens the aims of the Climate Change Act, while additional runways in London would worsen an already deadly air quality crisis. MIT estimates that Heathrow will cause 150 premature deaths a year by 2030 if it gets a third runway. Which of these is really the criminal act?
It’s ironic that this decision comes so soon after the UK government signed a global climate deal. We cannot take meaningful action on climate change while the aviation industry continues to expand. Efficiencies can be made, but they won’t outstrip expansion. There is no substitute for reducing the overall number of flights to keep global carbon emissions at safe levels.
The Heathrow 13 understand the dangers presented by a new runway in London. The judgment against them noted the “astronomical” costs incurred by a few delayed flights. We recognise that the costs of unchecked climate change and pollution will be far higher, and far graver. This is what our government and judicial system should be cracking down on, not peaceful protest.
We stand in solidarity with the Heathrow 13.
John McDonnell MPLab, Hayes and Harlington Caroline Lucas MP Green, Brighton Pavilion John Sauven Chief executive, Greenpeace UK Piers TelemacqueNUS Vice-president for society and citizenship Tatiana Garavito Wretched of the Earth Marc StearsChief executive, New Economics Foundation Dr Mark H BurtonSteady State Manchester Collective Richard DixonDirector, Friends of the Earth Scotland Sally Davison and Ben LittleCo-editors, Soundings Journal Aaron KielyPeople’s Assembly Against Austerity Neil KingsnorthHead of activism, Friends of the Earth Sam Lund-Harket Global Justice Now Dr Jo Ram and Joel Benjamin, Co-directors, Community Reinvest Andrew TaylorPeople & Planet Jenny Tonge Former Lib Dem MP for Richmond Park Fionn Travers-Smith Campaign manager,Move Your Money Hilary Wainwright and Michael Calderbank Editors, Red Pepper Magazine Catherine West MP Lab,Hornsey and Wood Green Nicolò WojewodaEurope team leader, 350.org
The Flight of Reason in the Face of Airport Expansion
By Zion Lights (Huffington Post blog)
If 1,300 flights a day take off from Heathrow airport and no one connects them to the recent flooding up north, does that mean they’re not contributing to climate change?
This question is brought to you by the sort of logic we seem to be employing in Britain at present regarding the aviation industry. In 2011 this sector accounted for 6% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the UK, and according to the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) Heathrow is the only UK airport located in an area known to have air pollution levels that are consistently above legal air quality limits. This, and other pollution issues including the fact that the Heathrow area was found to be in breach of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) standards, culminated with David Cameron’s pre-election statement that there would be ‘no ifs, no buts’ on the matter of the third runway: it made no sense for the expansion to go ahead.
Enter Plane Stupid, a campaign group that employs direct action to fight airport expansion, and more specifically, the Heathrow 13 who chained themselves to the runway in July 2015, cancelling 22 flights and causing numerous delays. When they were arrested, a police officer told them: ‘As a consequence of you being here, you are causing severe disruption and it will be in the millions of pounds.’ Similarly, on Monday this week Judge Deborah Wright stated that the ‘cost’ of the disruption at the airport was ‘absolutely astronomical’.
This raises an interesting point regarding cost and consequences that doesn’t take into account the great looming elephant in the room that is climate change. There are no easily calculable figures to show the cost to our planet from the additional 250,000 flights a year or the health costs and consequences related to the increased pollution that the new runway will bring. Nor did Judge Wright mention the fact the Londonexceeded its 2016 pollution limit by the 8th day of this year, making our commitments to emissions reductions laughable, if increased global droughts and floodings were something we could laugh about.
The consequences, then, need a different measure for the scenario relating to the impact of increased pollution levels on human and animal health, and the warming of our planet. I’d say the word ‘astronomical’ was more fitting regarding this impact, since 2016 is already expected to be the warmest year on record, following in 2015‘s stead. It’s difficult not to divert the discussion to vested interests – and others have speculated that the might of the aviation industry may be a factor at play regarding the reversed decision on the airport expansion – but cost and consequences should definitely be a prominent focus, as the result of this third runway is that of climate change: death and suffering the world over, and the failure of our governing bodies to do anything to prevent it.
Additionally, the consequence of this verdict spits on British freedom to effectively protest emissions increases, because Plane Stupid were tipping the scales in favour of reason when they locked on for the climate, and now that has been interpreted to be a bigger crime by the British justice system. In reality there is no bigger crime against our planet than climate change, and no greater injustice than the death and suffering it continues to bring.
In response to the original decision to go ahead with the runaway, Sarah Shoraka of Plane Stupid said: ‘We need to insert climate change into the narrative, it’s been absent from the whole debate ever since the report [approving the airport expansion] came out.’ Plane Stupid’s statement after the verdict states: ‘Today’s judgment demonstrates that the legal system does not yet recognise that climate defence is not an offence…Climate change has already claimed many lives, and it is the continued negligence of governance that forces citizens to act in their stead.’
The British legal system has it wrong here, and the aviation activists are in the right. We need to ensure that our governments enforce emissions limits, and that they prioritise health and planetary welfare over perceived profit. We need to stop prioritising foreign investors over local residents and global responsibilities, and to hold those who are driving emissions increases to account. Climate change should form a significant part of the dialogue when costs and consequences are assessed.
In addition to this, we need more people to take a stand against the bullying might of the industries that are trashing our only planet, and we need more voices to be heard in defence of our only home. Sending the Heathrow 13 to prison? That’s just plain stupid. And it won’t stop them either – as they said after the verdict, they’re ‘in it for the long haul.’ In terms of the planet, so are we all.
The Heathrow 13 face what they call ‘an unusually harsh sentence’ on 24th February, of a minimum of three months in prison each. Find them on Twitter @planestupid and on Facebook.