A letter from shadow chancellor John McDonnell and Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton, warns that jailing the 13 protesters who chained themselves to a Heathrow Airport runway last year would represent a “massive threat” to the right to peaceful protest in the UK.
The letter published in the Guardian, which also include heads of Greenpeace UK, Friends of the Earth Scotland and the New Economics Foundation, as well as the vice-president of the National Union of Students, said:
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.
Last month, 13 members of the Plane Stupid group were found guilty of aggravated trespass and entering a security-restricted area of an aerodrome.
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.
Mike Schwarz, a lawyer from Bindmans representing nine of the 13 convicts, said that sentencing guidance recognised the “constitutional role” which civil disobedience had to play in a democracy, and that conditional discharge was usually the starting point for such a conviction.
According to Schwarz, there were very strong arguments to say that the protesters should not get custodial sentences, and it would be “exceptional” if they did.
Three of the activists have been previously convicted of aggravated trespass, while the other 10 have no previous convictions.
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, and that it was “extremely surprising” that custody has been raised as a real possibility.
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.
The signatories said they shared the protesters’ concerns over the increasing impact of aviation 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, according to the official 2016 European Aviation Environmental Report.
Governments are negotiating at UN talks this year to set the first CO2 standards for planes.
According to the Plane Stupid website, a solidarity protest is planned for February 24 from 9am in front of Willesden Magistrate Court, in solidarity for Heathrow 13 who will return to court for final sentencing on that date.