These people tried to save lives. But the government is going to extraordinary lengths to prosecute them.

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The government is going to extraordinary lengths to prosecute a group which disrupted one of the world’s largest arms fairs. The group of eight protesters were acquitted at Stratford Magistrates’ Court of highway obstruction in 2016 after successfully arguing they were trying to stop a greater crime taking place.

But the government, wanting to ensure that it’s business as usual for the arms trade, re-opened the case against them. And the case was heard at the High Court on 13 June.


The eight people were arrested in 2015 during protests against Defence Systems Equipment International (DSEi), an arms fair that takes place every two years at the ExCeL Centre in London.

There were 1,500 exhibitors from across the world, including the world’s top ten arms manufacturers. 61 countries were invited. 14 of these, including Algeria and Bahrain, had authoritarian regimes. Four of them, including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, have been listed by the UK as having human rights issues. And a further 11 countries on the list, such as Ukraine and Iraq, are currently at war.


Since its inception in 1999, DSEi has been the subject of widespread protests. In 2015, these protests focused on the setting up of the arms fair to try and prevent it from happening.

The eight people arrested faced trial for what is basically a traffic offence: highway obstruction. But the activists successfully asserted that their actions were justified since they were seeking to prevent greater crimes including the promotion for sale of torture weapons, internal repression in Bahrain, and the mass indiscriminate killing of civilians in Yemen, Palestine, and Kurdistan.

According to their press release, the activists argued that:

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Civilians in Yemen are continuously being killed by the Saudi led coalition. A report by the Yemen Data Project found that more than a third of air strikes have hit civilian sites including schools, hospitals and mosques. Some attacks have used UK bombs and cluster munitions. The UK has licensed over £3 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since the onslaught started two years ago. According to the UN, more than 10.000 people have been killed and 2.8 million driven from their homes by fighting across the country.

They were acquitted. And the District Judge, Angus Hamilton, said that there was:

clear, credible and largely unchallenged evidence from the expert witnesses of wrongdoing at DSEI and compelling evidence that it took place in 2015.

The High Court

But the government wasn’t happy to accept that a court had found its flagship arms fair to be breaking the law. And so the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) re-opened the case. The CPS took the case to the High Court. It argued that the evidence regarding the legality of the arms fair should not have been heard.

The defendants stated:

The CPS cannot dispute any of the findings of fact made at our trial concerning criminality at DSEI, or the high probability that weapons bought there would be used for war crimes. How could they, when every credible authoritative source only serves to confirm that the UK government and other repeat DSEI invitees such as Saudi and its coalition allies are solidly and persistently complicit in the mass indiscriminate killing of civilians?

And one of their solicitors, Lydia Dagostino from Kelly’s solicitors, questioned whether the case meant that direct action was justified:

In a democratic society, when all avenues have been pursued and exhausted, sometimes the significant question is raised of whether direct action can be justified in some circumstances.

Further protests

DSEi is returning to ExCeL in September 2017. And further protests are planned. Andrew Smith from Campaign Against Arms Trade argued that “whatever the verdict”, the arms fair needs to be opposed:

The arms trade is an illegitimate, immoral trade, and events like DSEI are central to it.  Whatever the verdict, we need to mobilise the biggest possible opposition when it returns to London later this year.

One of the defendants, Susannah Mengesha, agreed. Speaking to The Canary, she stated:

I am now more convinced than ever of the need to shut down the DSEi. The deals made at DSEi result in torture, repression and mass killings of civilian populations and freedom fighters in places such as Yemen, Palestine and Kurdistan.

And she is clear that we all need to take action to shut down DSEi:

Our case has only served to highlight that all other avenues have been exhausted and the only way forward to stop the arms fair is direct action. It has become clear during our case that the state truly anticipate that by collective action on the streets we could feasibly stop this event from taking place. If we allow ourselves to believe it, it’s clear to me we could actually stop this thing.

Lives at stake

The arms trade makes money from death and destruction. It fuels conflict around the world. And there are lives at stake.

These defendants tried to save lives through their actions. And the government, via the CPS, has gone to extraordinary lengths to legitimise the arms fair. But it will not work

It is down to all of us to oppose DSEi 2017. And as Mengesha asserts, we can shut it down.

Get Involved!

– Find out how to get involved in stopping DSEi 2017 from Stop the Arms Fair.

– Find out more information about the arms trade from CAAT.

Featured image via Flickr/Flickr

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