Prosecution in trial of former Chair of Camden Greens suggests that ‘anarchy in the UK’ could ensue if activists are acquitted

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 trial of a former chairman of the Camden Green Party who lay in front of a lorry carrying a tank to an arms fair was told by the prosecution that acquitting him could lead to more civil disobedience in the UK.

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

Tom Franklin, 57, who lived in Primrose Hill at the time of the protest, is standing trial with four men and three women at Stratford Magistrates Court accused of obstructing the public highway.

Another of the defendants, Asa Al-Aali, 21, lives in Camden after fleeing persecution in Bahrain and yesterday told the court of the torture he suffered there as a teenager. He was arrested along with Mr Franklin, for laying in the road.

The eight defendants either chained themselves to gates or vehicles or lay down to block their passage into the ExCel Centre in Docklands last September, where the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) fair was taking place.

None of the defendants disputes their actions, but all claim they were trying to prevent far more serious crime from taking place.

Prosecuting solicitor Caimbe Daly argued that if their defence of prevention of crime is accepted, this could open the floodgates for other protestors to take the law into their own hands.

Ms Daly said: “If one starts on this course, where is the line drawn in terms of what action can be taken?.... At the other extreme, where you have, for argument’s sake, a plane that is carrying weapons and we know the plane is destined for Saudi Arabia, are they then entitled to blow up that plane?”

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She argued that the defendants never actually believed they would be able to stop the “criminality”, given the nature and scope of what was happening at an arms fair visited by around 30,000 people, but that their true intention was to raise awareness of their cause.

Leading the defence, Adam Payter said the UK has a “rich history of civil disobedience” which has contributed “significantly” to some of the country’s achievements, citing the example of the Suffragettes chaining themselves to railings.

And speaking of the international fight for democracy, he said: “One of the most enduring images of the twentieth century is the man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square. Non-violent democratic action is sometimes necessary…It’s part of the democratic process, not exempt from it.

“We have heard suggestions that this is the road to anarchy … but these defendants engaged in entirely peaceful, good humoured action, motivated by the purest of intentions.”

The defence argued that lying or standing in a road is both “proportionate” and “reasonable” to the defendants’ stated intention of preventing crime.

Adeela Khan, defending Mr Al-Aali and Mr Franklin, said that both men had been in the road for only 15 minutes before they were arrested.

She said both had exhausted legal means to try and halt the sale of arms which they believe are destined to end up in the hands of oppressive regimes.

Ms Khan said: “They both honestly and genuinely believed that the UK government were not effective in preventing sales of illegal weapons.”

The trial heard evidence from expert witnesses, who testified on the nature of the arms deals which take place at the biennial DSEI fair.

Kat Hobbs, from Campaign against Arms Trade, told the court the UK had licensed £2.8 billion worth of arms deals to Saudi Arabia since the country began its conflict with Yemen in March 2015, and that such weapons were routinely used for war crime against civilians.

She said that Saudi Arabia is by far the biggest customer for UK arms exports, and that its invited delegates would effectively have “the red carpet rolled out for them” at the fair, which has around 1,600 exhibitors.

Ms Hobbs said that British arms exports to Saudi Arabia had increased significantly since the conflict with Yemen began, with an estimated 2,800 civilians being killed, including 700 children.

She said: “I think we can infer from that… that British bombs are being used extensively in Yemen.”

Ms Hobbs said the attitude of the British government towards enforcing its own laws around arms exports was “extremely poor” and that her organisation is taking legal action against it as a result.

Her evidence stated that other major clients at DSEI are thought to be Turkey and Bahrain.

She said that since conflict began in Bahrain after the Arab Spring of 2011, the UK’s arms exports to the country has risen sharply to £45 million worth annually – up from around £2 million a year in the three years prior to 2011.

She said that much of what was known about the secretive deals at the fair comes from investigative journalism, but added: “Anecdotally, from our contact with journalists, it has become harder and harder to gain access to the fair.”

Asked about the Turkish government’s policy on cluster munitions – which are banned under international law – Ms Hobbs said that Turkey is believed to hold a stockpile of them, and is not thought to have signed up to the international agreement.

She said there had been numerous reports of human rights violations by Turkey against the Kurdish people to oppress pro-democracy campaigners, using tanks, shells and sniper rifles as well as tear gas.

Questioned by the prosecuting solicitor over how she could be certain which sales actually went on at DSEI, Ms Daly said: “We know that arms fairs play an absolutely crucial role in arms deals…When we talk about legal and illegal arms sales, sometimes it can be a bit misleading…most weapons are sold perfectly legally, but are then used for human rights abuse.”

Another expert witness called by the defence, Sayed Ahmed of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, told the court that human rights abuse is commonplace in the country.

Mr Ahmed said Bahrain is ruled by an “absolute monarchy” and that calls for reforms by civilians routinely lead to imprisonment.

He told the court the Saudi military lends support to the autocratic regime, and said the UK government is one of the main providers of weapons which are used to “crush” the democratic movement in Bahrain.

Mr Ahmed said that torture is “systematic” to punish Bahrani protestors, and Amnesty International estimates the country has 3,000-4,000 political prisoners – disproportionately high for its population.

Mr Franklin, Mr Al-Aali, Susanah Mengesha, Angela Ditchfield, Lisa Butler, Javier Garate Neidhardt, Luis Tinoco Torrejon and Bram Vranken all stand trial for the same offence of wilfully obstructing the highway.

After hearing all the evidence and legal arguments, District Judge Angus Hamilton agreed to consider the prevention of crime defence and a verdict is expected tomorrow (Friday).