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Democracy’s last resort

The acquittal of two men who broke into the Fairford airbase to try to disable B52 bombers at the start of the Iraq war is a victory for democracy, writes Stuart Weir

July 1, 2007
7 min read

Just over four years ago, Toby Olditch and Philip Pritchard, two carpenters from Oxford, broke into RAF Fairford with the intention of disabling American B52 bombers. It was just before the ‘shock and awe’ offensive against Iraq began. Their aim was to try to save the lives of at least some ordinary Iraqi citizens. They believed that even if, as was likely, the bombers could be made airworthy after their assault, even a few days’ delay in flights would have given some people the opportunity to flee to safety.

As it happens, they were caught before they reached even their first target. (They walked calmly once they were in the airbase rather than running, as they thought they would be less likely to be shot if they were seen by guards.)

On 22 May a jury of eleven women and one man at Bristol crown court acquitted the two men on charges of criminal damage. This was the end of a long ordeal for them both – they were first tried for the same offence in October 2006 after the court of appeal had ruled on whether they (and other protesters who had broken into RAF Fairford on other occasions) could argue that the invasion represented a ‘crime of aggression’ under international law that had effect in domestic law. They had been held in prison for several months and faced long prison sentences had they been found guilty.

As I understand it, the court of appeal ruled that the legality of the invasion was not an issue. This was not least because the government – or rather, let’s be real, Tony Blair – went to war under royal prerogative powers, which do not require parliamentary approval and are outside the jurisdiction of the courts. In a judgment that trawled back to Blackstone’s Commentaries of 1769 and a pre-war case of piracy in China, one judge described the protesters’ case as ‘an attempt to limit the government’s freedom of movement in relation to the actual use of military force’. He said: ‘It is unthinkable that the national courts would entertain a challenge to a government’s decision to declare war or to authorise the use of armed force against another country!’

Thank god, then, for the inconvenient existence of the jury. The court of appeal did (again on my understanding) rule that the criminal law allowed citizens to commit what would otherwise be a criminal act to protect their own or someone’s property, or to prevent a greater crime, if they sincerely believed that was what they were doing. Well, there was no question about the sincerity of either Toby Olditch or Philip Pritchard; their testimony breathed sincerity.

I am sure, however, that the jury was also persuaded by the enormity of the ‘shock and awe’ assault upon Iraqi cities and communities. On this count, Philip Pritchard’s evidence on the effects of cluster bombs and depleted uranium (DU) was utterly convincing and chilling. I think we all know that cluster bombs are not that effective in immediate action, but can go on killing and maiming men, women and children for years afterwards. I am ashamed to say that I was unaware of the evil effects of depleted uranium.

Depleted uranium gives shells and missiles a far greater penetrative power than conventional metals and so is great at bursting through bunkers and even greater at destroying houses and habitats. It also gives off radioactive material that pollutes the air people breathe and the water they drink or wash in; and people may breathe in or ingest this vile product over a ‘half life’ amounting to four and a half billion years. The effects on human beings, both alive and yet to be born, is devastating.

The US government does not respond to questions about DU use. Defence minister Adam Ingram confirmed in answer to a parliamentary question that British forces do use DU and other modern weaponry, the better to protect our troops.

It makes me sick as I contemplate this. The big lie inherent in the idea that the Yanks and the Brits use ‘clever’ and ‘precision’ weapons to avoid ‘collateral damage’ in their ‘strikes’ against their targets is shameful enough. But that they also use such indiscriminate and devastating weapons, which will claim victims for countless generations to come, is surely a war crime?

It may not be ‘justiciable’ in the domestic courts of the UK. But it is ‘justiciable’ in the court of human justice across the world, and thank god it proved to be ‘justiciable’ in Bristol. And for me it will be ‘justiciable’ when I come to vote.

Yes, what a pathetic sanction – when I come to vote . . . The prosecution was going to argue that Toby Olditch and Philip Pritchard could have used democratic means to make their case against the war. In response, Democratic Audit produced a legal brief for the defence that showed Blair assembled a very small group of ministers and officials to take the UK to war against the wishes of the people; and that when deceit and manipulation failed to win the argument, he resorted to the brute use of political power. The cabinet was kept largely in the dark and parliament was denied a vote until it was too late. The prosecution wisely decided to drop the democratic line of argument; it was not on their side.

As it happens, democracy came to the aid of the two men in the form of the jury. In this sense, the jury was the last resort when the cabinet, parliament and the courts had failed, as previous juries have been over the years – for example, over the destruction of GM crops. The British public is fairly sympathetic to direct action, as opinion polls for the Rowntree Reform Trust have shown – as long as the action is non-violent and careful to protect others from harm.

Toby Olditch and Philip Pritchard conducted an exemplary campaign. They prepared statements to justify their actions. They planned to attach such material to any bomber they sabotaged to make sure that no one would attempt to fly it. They prepared to give themselves up afterwards. In doing so, they not only frustrated the prosecution’s attempts to portray them as reckless and dangerous; they have also been able since to make an eloquent case for their action among the public at large.

Shortly after their acquittal, Jeremy Vine gave them time on his BBC Radio 2 chat show. They didn’t have as long to make their case as they had in Bristol. If those who managed to have a say on the programme are anything to go by, listeners were obviously amazed that they had been acquitted and there was a strong current of outrage centred on the idea that they were undermining our troops. But the very reasonableness of their action disarmed the most strident criticism; and one man had the last word, saying that in light of the danger from ‘friendly fire’, they may well have saved a few British lives.

The Bristol jury has struck a blow for democracy on matters of war – a democracy that is currently denied to us via our representatives in parliament. We should salute both Toby Olditch and Philip Pritchard’s action and the jury’s decision to endorse it. For the future, we need to examine very carefully Gordon Brown’s promised reform of parliament’s role in making war.

Government needs to be placed under a statutory duty to seek parliamentary approval in advance, or immediately afterwards if its hand is forced. True democracy demands no less.

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