'Stansted 15' anti-deportation activists spared jail time in UK

There is anger at the use of 'terror' laws to prosecute the activists as more flights are planned to deport migrants.

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    Fifteen protesters who faced jail for life under the United Kingdom's "terror" laws for locking themselves together around a plane to stop the deportation of migrants have been spared imprisonment.

    Judge Christopher Morgan on Wednesday sentenced the so-called "Stansted 15" to 12 community service sentences and three suspended prison terms for their role in the 2017 protest.

    There is growing anger in the country over the use of "terrorism" rules to prosecute the 15 as well as the continuing policy of deportations which creates a "hostile environment" for immigrants amid reports that such further flights are planned.

    Speaking exclusively to Al Jazeera after leaving the court, one of the defendants, Melanie Evans, 35, of Leytonstone, London, said she was "enormously relieved" at not being sent to jail.

    "This experience has been incredibly stressful for all of us but it is really only a window into the situation faced by so many migrants in the UK right now, who have a right to seek asylum here but whose asylum applications are being mishandled by the Home Office," she said.

    Evans said the 15 would now be appealing their original convictions, arguing that the jury in their trial was never given the opportunity to consider the reasons for their peaceful protest that night.

    "The fact that we were trying to prevent harm and protect people whose lives are at risk - that's a huge part of why there are concerns around the safety of these convictions," she said.

    "Furthermore, there are big questions to be asked about the use of terror-related offences to prosecute peaceful protest in the UK."

    Hundreds of supporters of the 'Stansted 15' gathered outside the court and inside the court during the proceedings on Wednesday.

    Cause celebre

    The case of the 15 activists - aged between 27 and 44 - had become a cause celebre since they were convicted in December of endangering the safety of an aerodrome with their protest in March 2017.

    The activists had cut a fence to enter a restricted area of London's Stansted airport and chained themselves together to halt a Boeing 767 deporting 60 people to Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone.

    While most of those being flown on the Stansted flight were subsequently moved out of the UK, some still remain and are fighting their cases with the Home Office.

    The Stansted convictions drew attention to the tough deportation policy adopted by the UK under the-then Home Secretary Theresa May, now the country's prime minister.

    End Deportations and other groups have alleged that some of those being forced on to special flights chartered by the government are being removed illegally.

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    Evans told Al Jazeera that another deportation flight to Jamaica is planned by the government in the coming weeks - the first since the "Windrush" scandal that highlighted the injustices of UK immigration policy towards legal migrants from the West Indies.

    "This raises huge concerns because what happened with the Windrush scandal is that hundreds of people were deported when they should not have been: at least 11 people have died as a consequence of those deportations and this goes to prove what we were concerned about at the time of our action."

    Kevin Smith of the End Deportations campaign group, to which the 15 belong, said, "There are serious questions about people being charged with terror-related offences for peaceful protest."

    "But what really needs to be changed is the 'hostile environment' in the UK towards migrants, the systematic cruelty with which the authorities are treating people, and the need to stop charter flights," he added.

    "It does raise very serious questions about whether there are any people on the plane to Jamaica that is being planned who are being deported illegally in a similar way."

    Immigration policies condemned

    Human rights groups denounced the 'Stansted 15' prosecutions and the government's immigration policies.

    Following Wednesday's ruling, Amnesty International condemned the decision to charge the protesters under terror laws and the impact this could have for the right to protest in the UK.

    Kate Allen, Amnesty International's UK director, said, "The decision not to jail these brave human rights defenders is a relief, but not enough. They should never have faced this very serious terrorism-related charge in the first place. They remain convicted of an offence which simply doesn't fit their actions and their trial could have a dangerous chilling effect on peaceful protest in this country."

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    "We hope the court of appeal will swiftly put an end to the distressing ordeal that the 'Stansted 15' have faced for nearly two years," she said.

    Responding to the sentences, Shami Chakrabarti, the opposition Labour Party's Shadow Attorney General, said, "It will be a matter of relief to all those who value peaceful dissent, proportionality and common sense that none of the Stansted 15 have been imprisoned. But their terrorism convictions remain a real concern with serious consequences for their lives."

    Rights group Liberty urged the court to be mindful not to breach articles 10 and 11 of the European convention on human rights, which guarantee freedom of expression, including peaceful protest.

    "The excessive charges brought in this case were an attack on the right to protest that threatens activists, campaigners and anyone who cares about the need for dissent," Corey Stoughton, Liberty's acting director, told journalists.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera