Former Chair of Camden Green Party laid in front of tank ‘to prevent war crime and illegal arms dealing’

Tom Franklin with supporters, including Green Party mayoral candidate Sian Berry, outside court

Tom Franklin with supporters, including Green Party mayoral candidate Sian Berry, outside court - Credit: Archant

The former chairman of the Camden Green Party told a court this week that he laid down in front of a lorry carrying a tank to try and prevent illegal arms trading in London.

Tom Franklin with supporters and co-defendants outside court on the trial's opening day

Tom Franklin with supporters and co-defendants outside court on the trial's opening day - Credit: Archant

Thomas Franklin, 57, is on trial with seven others at Stratford Magistrates Court charged with wilfully obstructing the highway during a protest outside the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) arms fair at the Excel Centre in September 2015.

The defence presented by the accused effectively puts the arms trade on trial, as they claim they were trying to prevent illegal arms dealing and future war crimes through their actions.

It is believed to be the first time in British legal history that such a defence has been invoked in relation to an arms fair protest.

Mr Franklin lived in Elsworthy Road in Primrose Hill at the time of the protest, and does not dispute that he laid in the road to try and halt the passage of an HGV into the centre in Docklands.

But he and his co-defendants claim they were trying to prevent the sale of illegal torture equipment and weapons of mass destruction – such as cluster munitions - which they believe were destined for regimes including Saudi Arabia, Israel, Pakistan and Turkey.

Mr Franklin, an IT consultant who stood in the Camden Council elections for the Green Party in 2014, was asked by the defence to explain his reasons for attending the protest.

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He said: “I wanted to be there in body to say that I object to the sale of arms, especially the sale of illegal arms.”

Mr Franklin said that “in every single previous” DSEI fair, illegal arms dealing had been found to have taken place through multiple sources, including the investigations of Amnesty International, the press and in Parliamentary reports.

He arrived at the protest on the morning of September 10, where campaigners were making their feelings known through public speaking, singing peace songs, waving banners and leafleting.

He said he became aware that a group of protestors had blocked the passage of an HGV which was believed to be carrying a tank into the centre.

He said: “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.”

He added: “I don’t think there was anything less I could have done. I suppose I could have let down the tyres on the lorry or something, but that would have probably been a greater offence.”

Asked which crimes specifically he was trying to prevent, he said: “The sale of weapons for torture, which is illegal, the sale of weapons where we know that they are extremely likely to be used against civilians, which is illegal … and these crimes were very likely to involve the tank which I was attempting to stop.”

Police issued the standard “five stage warning” which they give to protestors causing an obstruction, and Mr Franklin said he was asked if there was anything that officers could do to persuade him to move.

He told the court: “I said yes, if he could turn the tank around and make sure it didn’t drive to the arms fair, then I would move.”

CCTV evidence played to the court showed Mr Franklin eventually being arrested by officers, who carried him to the side of the road as he tensed his body up, but offered no resistance.

Prosecuting solicitor, Caoimhe Daly, put it to Mr Frankin that he had taken it upon himself to do the job of the police.

He replied: “It’s all our jobs. It’s not their job, actually. I seem to remember from my British constitution O level, back in the day, that we all have a duty to uphold the law.”

Ms Daly put it to him that he could not know for certain whether the tank would be used to commit war crimes in the future.

He replied: “It’s true, it might have broken down and never been used to kill anyone. If I saw an armed person with a gun and stopped them, and only afterwards discovered that it was a toy gun, I would still have been right in trying to stop them from using it.”

When it was put to him that the tank was a sales sample and may therefore never have been used, he replied: “Sales samples tend to be used. You may get a slight discount because it’s second hand.”

He agreed that some vehicles at the fair might be sold legally, but argued his claim that the tank would be used as a sample to sell other vehicles illegally was relevant to his defence.

Mr Franklin told the court he is Jewish by descent, but not religious, and has been politically active since his teens. He was formerly a member of the Labour Party, but left around 2000 because he was concerned about “war mongering”, amongst other reasons.

He said that as part of his activism, he wrote to various MPs with concerns about the arms trade and human rights abuses, but had never received any “effectual” response.

At the trial’s opening on Monday, dozens of the defendants’ supporters were outside court, including Green Party mayoral candidate and Highgate councillor, Sian Berry.

Ms Berry and Green Party leader Natalie Bennett both provided character references on behalf of Mr Franklin, although for technical reasons, these were deemed inadmissible.

In a joint statement, the defendants’ campaign team said: “Tools of the type promoted for sale at DSEI will be used to reinforce apartheid, to surveil and brutalise communities from Brixton to Bahrain, and to perpetuate the border regime that kills thousands every year – as European states wage a war against the refugees they helped create.

“Weapons promoted at DSEI are used to incinerate whole families at the touch of a button in places from Palestine to Pakistan. “Such weapons will continue to devastate landscapes and do permanent environmental damage across the globe.

“These weapons have been used in systematic forced evictions and ethnic cleansing - such as against the people of Kurdistan.

“We know that weapons of the type promoted at DSEI will be used to torture and repress people based on their political views, faith, gender, or sexuality in places like Saudi Arabia.

“Sometimes the tools of oppression are literal – and they are for sale at DSEI.”

Susanah Mengesha, Angela Ditchfield, Lisa Butler, Isa al-Aali, Javier Garate Neidhardt, Luis Tinoco Torrejon and Bram Vranken all stand trial for the same offence.

The defendants all plead not guilty and the trial continues.

Further coverage to follow.