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Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Anti-arms trade protesters acquitted of obstructing highway

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Anti-arms trade protesters acquitted of obstructing highway

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Judge finds 'compelling' evidence that weapons were illegally sold at London arms fair

Eight anti-arms trade protesters have been acquitted of wilful obstruction of the highway after a judge found that they blocked traffic to one of the world's biggest arms fairs to prevent crime.

The defendants were charged after hindering lorries and military vehicles attempting to access the Defence Systems and Equipment International (DSEI) conference, which took place at the London ExCel Centre in September 2015.

The group of protestors, members of which hail from Bahrain, the UK, Chile, Peru, and Belgium, denied wilful obstruction of the highway, arguing that their actions were necessary to prevent the greater crimes of the sale of illegal weapons and torture equipment, and the human rights abuses caused by the use of the weapons abroad.

During the week-long trial, expert witness Oliver Sprague, the programme director on arms control at Amnesty International UK, testified that illegal weapons including leg irons, electro-shock weapons, and cluster munitions had been found on display at every DSEI fair from 2005 until 2013.

DSEI, organised every two years by Clarion Events, brings together government representatives with many of the globe's biggest arms companies. Known invitees to DSEI include delegates from the governments of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Pakistan, and Turkey.

As an example of the business completed at the event, Sprague advised the court that more than £1bn worth of weapons were sold from the UK to Saudi Arabia between July and September 2015.

He stated that it was 'not theoretical, it was known' that the Saudi-led coalition was committing war crimes in Yemen at the time of the DSEI 2015 arms fair, stating that 'every credible and legitimate authority agrees that Saudi Arabia are committing war crimes in Yemen'.

Giving judgment at Stratford Magistrates' Court, District Judge Hamilton stated that the defendants had established 'clear, credible, and largely unchallenged evidence that criminal wrongdoing had happened at previous DSEI fairs' and there was a 'compelling inference that this was taking place at the 2015 exhibition'.

Raj Chada and Adeela Khan, lawyers from the criminal defence team at Hodge Jones & Allen, represented five of the defendants.

Commenting on the case, Chada said: 'It is clear that there are no proper checks at DSEI from any state agency. The government has turned a blind eye not only to the unlawful activity at DSEI, but also to the consequences of a trade that is killing thousands in Yemen and elsewhere.'

Khan added: 'Critically, the government's continued failings to stop the illegal exhibition of certain equipment used for torture or the sale of weapons to regimes that the UK knows are committing human rights abuses clearly demonstrates its inability to enforce its own law in this area.

'Our clients therefore feel justified in their action and make no apology for raising the public's attention to this event.'

Samantha Broadley, a solicitor at Bindmans who represented another of the defendants, said: 'It is clear that the UK government is failing to implement its own laws in stopping the marketing of illegal weapons and in the continuing sale of arms to states known to be committing war crimes abroad.

'It is in these shameful circumstances that our client felt compelled to act.'

The DSEI event organisers said that 34,038 delegates attended the 2015 exhibition with 1,683 global defence and security organisations from 54 countries exhibiting. The next event takes place in September 2017.

A spokesperson for the organisers told the Independent that HMRC, the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills (BIS) and other government agencies 'hold responsibility for enforcing the law in respect of UK Export controls at DSEI' and that it takes compliance at seriously.

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