This week activists are on trial for taking action against the DSEI arms fair last September.
Yesterday, three of the defendants presented their case. All of them spoke at length about why they felt their actions against DSEI were necessary in order to prevent greater crimes.
A big theme in case so far has been the governments attending DSEI and the companies exhibiting. Two of the activists focused on Saudi Arabia and the use of British weapons in the attacks on Yemen. The third defendant acted to try and stop Turkey’s crimes against Kurdish people. The activists firmly believed that their actions were necessary to try and stop the killing of civilians from taking place.
Angela Ditchfield from Cambridge has a long history of campaigning on social justice issues, having started writing letters with Amnesty International when she was 12. She has been involved in a wide variety of campaigning groups, including Global Justice Now, Jubilee Debt Campaign and Speak and started taking action against the arms trade after campaigning to end debts to seriously indebted countries, many of which were incurred through arms sales. When asked why she was concerned about DSEI, she replied that “Real deals get made there. Relationships are formed between governments and companies which lead to weapons being used to commit human rights abuses.”
She was also clear that this isn’t just about British companies and government, but that its where international links are made. Although Angela talked about likelihood that illegal weapons would be displayed or marketed at DSEI, given the history of the arms fair, Angela emphasised that it’s not just the trade in illegal weapons that’s the problem, but rather legal arms sales to countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel. She spoke about how the problem was the arms fair itself. On the day she was arrested, numerous vehicles were driving up to the event over the day. Angela stated that every vehicle that is helping to set up DSEI is contributing to death as a result of the deals are made there.
During the run-up to DSEI, the bombing of civilian targets like hospitals in Yemen was in the news and Angela wanted to try and stop future killings from taking place. Angela took action during DSEI in 2013 with the Christian group Put Down the Sword during the week of DSEI, but felt that trying to stop the setup of the fair was the most effective way of trying to stop lives from being lost.
Angela spoke to the driver of the vehicle she was blockading, and found out that it was Selex ES. Selex ES is a major arms producer and has a presence in Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US. In Saudi Arabia, it “designs, develops, produces and supports mission-critical defence electronic systems.” The prosecution mentioned CAAT’s legal proceedings against the UK government’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia, as an example of other means of affecting change; but Angela said that legal proceedings are lengthy and not quick enough to stop deaths happening now. “If I don’t put my body in the way, this equipment will help kill someone. I have to do as much as I can do to stop that from happening… If I knew of anything else I could do to stop the arms fair, tell me how to do it. I do not believe that I can singlehandedly stop the global arms trade. But with other people we can.”
Tom from Yorkshire helped stop an armoured vehicle from entering the Excel Centre during the academic protest ‘Conference at the Gates’. When questioned about why he took action, he said “I only acted because the government is failing to enforce its own laws”.
He spoke about the serious risk that the equipment destined for the Excel Centre would be used against civilians, given that official delegations from countries like Saudi Arabia were attending, and the companies supplying its weapons were exhibiting. When asked by police whether there was anything they could do to get him to move, he replied: “Yes; if you turn the tank away and ensure it doesn’t reach the arms fair”.
Both activists have tried to create change through many other means, including lobbying their MPs; writing to local newspapers; organising public awareness-raising events; running for local councillors and social media and blogging.
The third defendant, Lisa, acted to try and stop Turkey’s crimes against Kurdish people, having spent time in Kurdish communities which have since suffered gross human rights violations. Lisa talked about how on the day she was arrested; a town she had been in a month earlier – Cizre – was surrounded by police and the military, tanks and rockets, and there were snipers on the street. Hundreds of people were killed indiscriminately and thousands have been internally displaced. Lisa has written several articles about the Kurdish massacre and is involved in Kurdish solidarity work in England. She was with a Kurdish friend on the day she was arrested.
The trial will continue all of this week at Stratford Magistrates Court from 10am and anyone is allowed to watch it from the public gallery.