Vyara Gylsen was one of the campaigners who was arrested for protesting outside DSEI last year. Her charges were eventually dropped, but not until after two court dates and seven hours in a police cell. In this piece she reflects on the reasons she protested and the recent acquittal of eight other anti-DSEI activists.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) just won’t quit wasting public money to prosecute peace campaigners acquitted of obstruction to the highway outside DSEI 2015.
Earlier this year, eight activists were acquitted for blockading DSEI on the basis that they were seeking to prevent greater crimes such as torture and the mass indiscriminate killing of civilians in places such as Yemen, Kurdistan, Palestine and Bahrain.
District judge Angus Hamilton, who oversaw the case at Stratford magistrates court, said that the defence had presented clear and credible evidence that illegal activity had been conducted at the DSEI arms fair in previous years, and that police arresting the activists had failed to investigate to ensure it was not happening again. So why were they there in first place?
Every two years, arms dealers and military representatives gather in East London for the DSEI arms fair, a chance for them to hop on the carousel of corporate greed, marvel at their latest deadly toys and shop for weapons of mass destruction. It must be a wild and exhilarating ride for those completely devoid of moral fibre, if only it wasn’t for those pesky human rights defenders.
“But governments have a right to defend themselves!” they cry. “We have some of the world’s most robust arms exports controls!”
Of course nothing could be further from the truth.
On paper the UK government has pretty tough rules on arms exports, but it is only too happy to ignore them. In theory weapons should not be sold to any country that may use for internal repression, external aggression or to violate international law. This criteria alone should eliminate all of the UK’s major buyers.
Instead, the UK arms many regimes that are known human rights abusers such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel and Bahrain, which consistently repress and kill civilians at home or abroad. If the law is not implemented, of what use is it?
This is why DSEI is such a heavily protested event.
Organisers and arms companies breached UK arms legislation in at least three of the last four DSEI exhibitions, and not once has any exhibitor or organiser been prosecuted. Illegal items, including torture implements and cluster munitions, have been marketed at previous years. Last year, organisers refused to allow human rights observers to even enter, so nobody can know what illegalities took place.
Last September, I was arrested for criminal damage to a military vehicle outside the event. I didn’t break it or smash it into pieces, I just wrote on it with washable ink. For my sins I was rugby tackled off the vehicle and faced the wrath of a police officer, who was clearly more concerned about the well being of the tank than me. Afterwards, I was thrown into a claustrophobic police cell for seven hours. The ink was washed off in five minutes, but I faced months on trial for my terrible deed.
While I was in my cell, a well meaning but somewhat indoctrinated police officer asked me about why I thought I could take the law in my own hands and what would happen if everyone was to start breaking the law. Surely there were legal ways of carrying out my action to prevent DSEI and surely all responsible citizens must abide by the law?
In response, I reminded him, that it was once legal to keep slaves and beat your wife. It was civil disobedience and collective action that fought for and demanded many of the rights and freedoms we enjoy today. Power is seldom given willingly by those who possess it. It is up to ordinary people to demand it.
As if the irony of being arrested for writing on a tank with washable ink wasn’t enough, one of the court dates I appeared on with my co-defendents, was Armstice Day. A day that was supposed to mark the end of all wars. The irony can’t have been lost on anyone when our hearing was stopped half way through to observe the two minute silence, but afterwards they continued to prosecute us.
My charges were dropped, but my co-defendents continue their legal battle, despite having been acquitted. What we have seen is a needless and expensive campaign led by the CPS against peace campaigners at the same time as they are turning a blind eye to arms dealers and exhibitors who walk freely, despite their violations of domestic and international law that cause immeasurable suffering, death and destruction in the world.
The fight against the arms trade continues. DSEI will return in 2017, and we will be waiting for it. Already, different groups are talking about how to take action and make sure that this time we shut it down for good.
If the victory of the #StopDSEI defendants inspired you, then join us in making a pledge to take action when the arms fair returns next year.