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If you had asked me, last May, what I would be doing in 12 months’ time, I would not have automatically responded, ‘privately prosecuting arms dealers’. But that is what I, together with other anti-arms campaigners, am currently preparing for. Social justice activism can lead you in unexpected directions.
The story of how this case came about began in police cells across London in September 2013. I was among a number of activists arrested for taking direct action to disrupt preparations for London’s Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEI) arms fair.
Some activists lay down on a main supply road, attached to each other through arm tubes. Some occupied entrances with their bodies. Some blockaded, and climbed under, incoming lorries to prevent the delivery of their destructive cargo. We were all charged with a range of obstruction offences, some of which potentially carried custodial sentences.
We targeted DSEI because it is one of the jewels in the thorny crown of the international arms industry. It brings together, on one side, some of the world’s most high profile warmongers, human rights abusers and dictators. On the other, the multinational companies who want to sell them weapons. The event is fully supported – politically, logistically and financially – by the British government.
The day after the fair had officially opened, a national newspaper reported that human rights campaigners had discovered two companies at DSEI were promoting ‘projectile electric shock weapons, weighted leg cuffs and stun batons’. The promotion of such equipment is banned under the Export Control Order 2008, as it is likely to be used, and in some cases is expressly designed, for torture.
When Caroline Lucas MP tabled a question in parliament drawing attention to the issue, event organiser Clarion ejected the two companies that had been highlighted for these breaches: French firm Magforce International, and the Chinese Tianjin MyWay International. They were duly shown the door, perhaps perplexed that hundreds of other companies continued to ply their deadly trade for the remainder of the week.
DSEI 2013 came to an end and we prepared for our own trials. The majority of those activists charged were going to argue that they had disrupted DSEI to prevent far more serious wrongdoing such as war crimes and torture. We stood in front of the district judge and pleaded not guilty.
As part of our trial preparation, we sent Freedom of Information requests to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC). We asked whether any legal action had been taken against the companies ejected for promoting torture equipment. We did not receive any satisfactory response.
Then, just before our trial dates, the charges against the majority of activists were ‘discontinued’. Of course we were relieved that these charges no longer hung over us, but we were also acutely aware that these two companies apparently faced no penalty for promoting torture equipment in our city.
The state’s uncritical support of the arms industry and its repeated failure to act – even when companies flout the few laws that it does have in place to ‘control’ the arms trade – led us to conclude that we had no choice but to privately prosecute those companies.
A private prosecution is a criminal proceeding initiated by an individual or private group instead of by a public prosecutor who represents the state. These important but unusual actions are rare today, as the CPS now carries out the majority of prosecutions.
If, for whatever reason, the CPS does not begin a criminal proceeding – and if one believes that a crime has taken place – any member of the public can bring a private prosecution for the vast majority of offences.
As part of our own trial preparations, we had obtained expert evidence from Amnesty International regarding illegal weapons promoted at every DSEI since 2005. We also obtained independent evidence from a professional firearms expert as to the illegal nature of the torture weapons being promoted at DSEI 2013.
Our solicitor, Raj Chada, then presented this information before the court, where the district judge approved our case and issued criminal summonses to the two companies.
Both companies were summonsed to appear on 24 April 2014 at Thames Magistrates’ Court. It was the same court where, only five months before, we had ourselves been stood in the dock for attempting to highlight and oppose the many wrongs of DSEI and the arms industry. When the morning came, a large group of our supporters gathered outside the court to meet the accused.
Magforce International clearly took the matter seriously. They had instructed internationally renowned barrister Iain Morley QC to represent them. He is perhaps best known for his involvement in the defense of Slobodan Milošević at the UN International Criminal Tribunal. The other company, Tianjin MyWay International, did not show up at court or send legal representation at all.
Morley QC attempted to get the trial heard that same day but the judge refused and set a date for the next substantive hearing: 26 November 2014. This hearing will consider the legal arguments and may well include the trial itself.
In line with our belief that this is a matter of significant public interest, our lawyer has asked the CPS to take over the case and HMRC to provide them with any necessary information to do so. We hope this happens sooner rather than later.
Although the promotion of torture weapons is, obviously, a sickening offence for which those accused should be held fully accountable; we also hope that this case highlights the barbarity of the so-called ‘legitimate’ and ‘legal’ arms industry.
The legitimate arms industry exhibiting at DSEI is built around legal weapons that cause untold devastation and suffering to thousands of people around the world every day. The drones that are used to blow up villagers in Pakistan are considered legal. The AK-47, that is estimated to have killed more people than any other weapon on earth, is legal. The most indiscriminate and destructive device ever to have been developed – the nuclear bomb – is, absurdly, legal.
What this private prosecution offers is a rare opportunity to literally, as well as metaphorically, put arms dealers in the dock and to hold them accountable for their actions. This private prosecution, then, is not simply an attempt to ‘clean up’ the DSEI arms fair. We maintain that the only real way to clean it up is to shut the whole thing down.
The military-industrial complex that spawned DSEI is so deeply embedded in our culture, our economy, our universities, our media, our political system and our complex history that opposing it sometimes feels like climbing a mountain.
This private prosecution offers a foothold in the cliff face. We need to use all methods available to us – direct action, political engagement, legal action – to stop this sickening trade and those who facilitate and protect it.
Let’s challenge them on the streets outside their networking dinners. Let’s challenge them at their AGMs. Let’s challenge them in Thames Magistrates’ Court at 9.30am on 26 November 2014. We hope to see you there.
For more information on how you can support us in putting arms dealers on trial please see www.armsdealersontrial.wordpress.com