As I arrived outside Bristol Crown Court shortly after 9am, there was already a sizeable group present to support Dr Margaret Jones and Paul Milling on the first day of their trial. Placards and banners in abundance made it clear to passers by what the vigil was about, with slogans such as
“Margaret Jones should not be persecuted for trying to save lives”
“The greatest mistake is to do nothing because you can only do a little”
“I wondered why somebody didn’t do something for peace. Then I realised that I am somebody”
“Bombing civilians in an illegal war is criminal. Preventing it is not”
The often-quoted passage from the Old Testament from which the nuclear disarmament group Trident Ploughshares takes its name was also present:
“They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
TV news reporters were present, interviewing Margaret, her solicitor and some of the supporters, against a background of the Bristol-based Red Notes Choir. Two MP3 clips of the choir singing are attached. A short video with an extract of one of Margaret’s interviews and an interview with one of the supporters, with more singing from the choir, is also attached.
Although previous hearings, including one at the House of Lords, have ruled that the government is not answerable to a British court for its war crimes in Iraq, the defendants still maintain that they were acting lawfully in sabotaging the vehicles which refuelled and armed the B52 bombers. As Margaret said to one of the TV reporters:
“If somebody had a gun and was about to shoot into a crowd, and you put your arm out and held that person so that the gun fired into the air, nobody would say you were committing an assault by grabbing that person’s arm. And that’s what we tried to do at Fairford.”
The hearing eventually started at 10:30am. The first point of business was to amend the date specified on the indictment. Although the act of sabotage actually took place on the 13th March 2003, the defendants are charged with conspiracy to commit criminal damage (why conspiracy rather than actual criminal damage is not clear), and the court was informed that said conspiracy was asserted to have taken place during the period of 1st January to 14th March 2003.
The charges were put to the defendants, and both entered pleas of not guilty.
The prosecution pointed out that there had been a great deal of interest in this case, and that there was also a lot of information about it, especially on the internet, which could impact the impartiality of the trial.
The judge acknowledged this point, and said that there was a need to consider whether a question should be put to potential jurors to determine whether they held views which could inhibit their independence. However, he concluded that it would be better not to have such a question, and to select the jurors by the normal process, and that he would watch out for any such problems as the hearing progressed and take appropriate action if any problems arose.
The jury was sworn in, and the judge explained that the court would be in session from 10:30am to about 1pm, and again from about 2pm to 4:30pm, however these times were flexible and would depend on convenient breaks in proceedings.
He warned the jurors not to speak to anyone about the case, with the exception of their fellow jurors, and then only when they were all together in the privacy of their jury room. He told them that there was a lot of information, especially on the internet, about both this case and about the law, however he told them not to do their own research on either this case or the law, but to take only the evidence presented to the court, and to take direction on the law only from himself.
The prosecution then presented the first three pieces of evidence, being firstly the indictment stating what the defendants are charged with, some photos of the damaged vehicles, and a plan of RAF Fairford.
The prosecution statement dealt mainly with two subjects – an account of the goings-on on the day of the action, and legal arguments. Although he kept jumping from one to the other, I’ve tried to separate them out for clarity.
When discovered, the defendants were in the refuelling compound in RAF Fairford, Margaret holding a hammer and a sack, and Paul holding a crowbar. Both dropped these items when instructed to do so by the soldier who discovered them. They were arrested on suspicion of criminal damage, and both stated that they were carrying out a non-violent act of resistance against war crimes and terrorism.
The prosecution noted that neither defendant offered any violence when being arrested, and also noted that the soldier who discovered them had kept his rifle pointed in a safe direction at all times.
Other soldiers arrived, and Margaret stated that they’d damaged the refuelling and arming trucks, and put stickers on them warning that they were not safe to use. When cautioned, Margaret said that the air base was being used for war crimes, and that she was doing everything in her power to prevent this. Similarly, Paul said that the base was being used for an illegal war, and that he was doing everything in his power to prevent this. These statements, said the prosecution, were tailored towards a defence in court.
The prosecution then described in great detail the exact damage that had been done, which I won’t repeat in full, although it included a triangular section cut out of the perimeter fence, and damage to a number of vehicles including smashed instruments, brake lines cut, and fine sand in or around the mouths of the fuel tanks, requiring the tanks to be “purged and cleaned”. Although photos of the damaged vehicles had been submitted in evidence, there was no index, so it was not possible to tell which photo was of which vehicle. The prosecution stated that a video showing the damage would be shown the following day.
At 10pm the defendants were searched, and items were found on them confirming their intent to damage vehicles and label them as damaged (supporters in the public gallery surmised that this meant the stickers they’d been using to mark the vehicles as unsafe for use).
The defendants were then transferred to the custody of civilian police in Stroud, where they both handed in identical pre-prepared statements explaining the reason for their actions.
During the recounting of events, the prosecution conceded that no lives were threatened by the actions of the defendants.
The legal argument being used by the prosecution goes something like this.
* The government is democratically elected, and once elected the government can do what they damn well like, without being accountable to the people or to a court of law.
* Prevention of war crimes or terrorism is not a defence against a charge of criminal damage. The prosecution described two examples of valid defence against a charge of criminal damage:
1) If a tree is about to fall on one’s house, then one can cut the tree down to prevent it from falling on the house.
2) One may use a car to run another car off the road in order to prevent that car from being driven into a group of children.
* Section 3 of the Criminal Law Act states that reasonable force may be used to prevent a crime being committed, however the prosecution asserted that not only were the actions of the defendants not reasonable, in view of the extent of the damage caused, but they could not have prevented the bombing from going ahead, therefore their actions were not lawful.
* The prosecution stated that there has been a great deal of debate over whether or not war crimes have been committed in Iraq, and whether or not the invasion was legal, however he asserted that for the purposes of deciding whether or not the defendants are guilty of conspiracy to cause criminal damage, these arguments are neither here nor there and have no bearing on the current trial.
The court then adjourned for lunch. Other commitments prevented me from attending the afternoon session, or any of the subsequent days of the trial, however supporters of the Fairford disarmers are most welcome to come to the Bristol Crown Court on any day of the trial, either to join the vigil outside, or to listen to the evidence and arguments from the public gallery.
On the basis of just the prosecution’s opening statement, things are looking quite bleak, but the defendants can take some comfort from a very similar case which was tried in Ireland, in which the “Pitstop Ploughshares” were acquitted of causing unlawful damage to a US Air Force supply plane at Shannon airport in February 2003 (see http://www.indymedia.ie/article/77460
). I can only hope that the jury in this case shows the same wisdom, and find these two brave and honourable people not guilty.
See also this article in yesterday’s Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/antiwar/story/0,,1864319,00.html