Andrea Needham writes: On 29 January 1996, I was one of a group of women who disarmed a Hawk warplane at BAE’s Warton factory in Lancashire. The plane was destined for Indonesia, where it would be used in the ongoing occupation and genocide in East Timor.
Exactly 21 years later, and now in the era of social media, I was idly perusing Facebook on a Sunday morning when I saw that two men had broken into the very same factory, with the intention of disarming warplanes being sold by BAE to Saudi Arabia, for use in their crimes against humanity in Yemen.
What wonderful news to wake up to! And how uncannily similar a situation to the one we faced in 1996: British government sells weapons to despotic regime, dismissing evidence they’re being used against civilians; campaigners do everything in their power to stop the sales, but the government and the weapons manufacturer insist the sales must continue; activists break into the factory and attempt to disarm the weapons themselves.
Sam and Dan have been released on bail pending charges. I suspect BAE Systems will be looking at their case with some concern, mirroring closely as it does our disarmament of an Indonesian Hawk, a case which didn’t end well for the company.
We were charged with around £2 million of criminal damage, and spent six months in prison awaiting trial. We had an outrageously biased judge, who said that women like us should be locked up for a very long time. But we were able to put the case to the jury, and to call witnesses to back up what we were saying about our reasons for disarming the Hawk. We had tried everything else; the plane was going to be used to murder people in an illegally occupied country; delivery was imminent.
Under British law, you’re allowed to use reasonable force to prevent crime. That was the nub of our defence: we were using reasonable force to prevent murder in East Timor. The jury, probably knowing nothing about East Timor before they entered the courtroom, listened to the evidence and reached the only possible conclusion. We were acquitted of all charges.
Our acquittal caused outrage from many national newspapers, and several MPs (including the local MP, Nigel Evans, who as I write is probably frothing himself into outrage about the latest act of disarmament) even called for an enquiry by the Attorney General into how we could have been acquitted when we had openly admitted to having disarmed the plane. Setting aside the nonsense about an inquiry (it’s the jury system: it may not always produce the result you want), the answer was simple: ordinary people, when presented with the facts, could see that the government and BAE Systems were complicit in appalling crimes. Trying to stop those crimes was the right – indeed, the only – thing to do.
Sam and Dan have just as strong a legal defence as we did. They did what they had to do in order to stop the complicity of our government in Saudi crimes against the people of Yemen. We send them all our love and solidarity and trust that if they’re charged, the twelve ordinary women and men of the jury will, like ours, see the rightness and truth of their action.
- Andrea Needham’s book, The Hammer Blow – how 10 women disarmed a warplane is available from Peace News