In a landmark case, eight Palestine Action activists who used direct action to shut down the Israeli weapons trade have been acquitted of a total of 12 charges, which included criminal damage, burglary and encouraging criminal damage. The trial, which commenced on November 13th, related to a series of actions taken during the first 6 months of Palestine Action’s existence from July 2020 to January 2021.
Richard Barnard, co-founder of Palestine Action, was convicted by a 10-2 majority of one count of criminal damage for an action at the now-closed Elbit Ferranti factory in Oldham. At least one jury member later asked if they could change their verdict, but they were prohibited from doing so. Lawyers will be considering appealing this conviction.
The jury failed to reach a majority decision regarding the remaining 23 charges. The CPS have until January 18th 2024, to decide if they will retry on those counts due to political pressure. Two of the Elbit Eight, Genevieve Scherer and Jocelyn Cooney, were unanimously acquitted on all charges. If the trial returns, the #ElbitEight will be the #ElbitSix instead.
The charges related to the occupation of Elbit Systems drone factory in Shenstone and Oldham, actions at its weaponry factory in Kent, Elbit’s London offices and the offices of Elbit’s landlords, Jones Lang LaSalle. These actions were taken to challenge Elbit’s operations and presence in Britain to prevent their manufacture of weapons bound for Israel. The current, unrelenting genocide against Palestinians in Gaza has now martyred over 20,000 Palestinians. Even before the trial commenced, the Eight and all other Palestine Action activists had been vindicated, leaving the court having shown that Elbit was guilty and that we have a moral and legal obligation to shut them down.
Most legal defences ruled out
The Eight had originally been charged with counts including blackmail, conspiracy to commit criminal damage, and burglary. The indictment was amended after the commencement of the trial, with the Crown Prosecution Service eventually bringing thirteen counts against the eight activists: seven counts of damaging property (criminal damage), three counts of burglary with intent to commit criminal damage, one count of possessing articles with intent to damage property, one count of threatening to damage property, and one count of encouraging others to commit the offence of criminal damage. The lattermost charge, encouraging others, was introduced as a replacement charge for ‘blackmail’ after Huda and Richard discussed direct action in a private Zoom meeting. The jury rejected this accusation.
Before the trial began, the judge had ruled out various defences which, Palestine Action maintain, are directly relevant to the actions and the context of Palestine Action more widely. The European Convention’s rights of freedom of expression (Article 10) and freedom of assembly and association (Article 11) were ruled out on the basis that no protest that includes damage to private property can be considered ‘peaceful’. The defences of necessity and the preservation of life were immediately ruled out, while protection of property was ruled out after evidence was heard. Therefore, the defence argument relied on consent. If those who owned the relevant buildings were aware of the heinous crimes that relied on Elbit products for their commission, they would consent to the Eight’s interventions.
At the start of the trial, the Eight were offered a plea deal: if Huda Ammori and Richard Barnard were to plead guilty, the others would be acquitted. All Eight defendants immediately rejected the deal and spent the following six weeks in Snaresbrook Crown Court, pleading not guilty to all charges on the basis that Elbit and Israel are the guilty party, not Palestine Action. Huda Ammori commented that:
“After pushing back our case for two years, the state has failed again to deter an ever-growing global direct-action movement. Everyday we’ve been on trial, more Palestinians have been massacred using Elbit’s weaponry. The duty of the people is clear – to take all direct action possible to Shut Elbit Down wherever you are. Justice will be complete when Palestine is free.”
The prosecution’s case
While prosecuting for the Crown, Sally Hobson sought to bring evidence ranging from the absurd to the offensive. Asking a Palestinian-Iraqi woman, Ms Ammori, whether she knows “where Hamas gets their weapons from” or insisting that Palestinians chanting the Takbir, ‘Allahu Akbar’, is an act of “taunting the IDF”, Hobson refused to enter into any meaningful discussion of the facts in the case. Precious little was said by the prosecution about the firm at the centre of the trial, Elbit, with the Crown refusing to even agree on facts that set out Elbit’s business activities. Ofer Meishar, Chief Security Officer of Elbit Systems, was due to give evidence at the trial. However, following a letter from the Israeli government saying that he was playing ‘a crucial role’ in the ongoing military operation, he was not allowed to leave Israel to give evidence at the trial.
Meanwhile, as regards the defence of consent relevant to the justification of the Eight’s actions, Phillip La Pierre, the CEO of LaSalle and a witness for the Crown, revealed the fact that the company did not investigate Elbit’s activities nor considered whether leasing property to Israel’s largest weapons company, whose products have documented links to war crimes, might be in violation of the company’s ‘human rights policy’.
The defence case
In response, the Eight set out to show that the actions of those working to disrupt the manufacture of Israel’s weaponry are justified in doing so. In fact, they are the ones who are upholding the law by intervening where other avenues of accountability have repeatedly failed.
The first defendant to give evidence was Richard Barnard, charged with five counts of damaging property, two counts of burglary, and one count each of threatening to damage property, possessing articles with intent to damage property, and encouraging others to commit criminal damage. Richard outlined how his life experiences and faith led him to feel he had a moral duty to shut Elbit down. Having overcome a history of addiction, he entered charity work in organisations supporting refugees and homeless people. Seeing the refugees arriving in Kent, having been displaced by war, is what Barnard referred to as the moment he became aware of the role of British-made weaponry manufactured as nearby as Elbit’s Sandwich factory in the suffering of the people with whom he worked. It was at this point that he realised – that supporting these people wasn’t enough, and we ought instead to end such war and oppression by dismantling the industry fuelling it.
Huda Ammori was meanwhile charged with six counts of damaging property, two counts of burglary, and one count each of threatening to damage property, possessing articles with intent to damage property, and encouraging others to commit criminal damage. As a Palestinian-Iraqi born in Britain, Huda told the jury of her formative political experiences, the Iraq War and the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Gaza, making it clear that opposition to imperialism and the West’s role particularly are urgent causes in which we have a duty to defy the positions of our State. After spending years working on divestment campaigns and trying to challenge the arms trade with conventional means, Huda realised that direct action was the only feasible solution:
“All other attempts fell short. Our exports to Israel are against our own license rules and against international law, but they can’t be stopped by the courts. After years of work, divestment campaigns were taking way too long; they weren’t matching the reality of the situation’s urgency. Every day, Palestinians were being killed, imprisoned – and surveilled under these drones 24/7. If the government were refusing to listen to the facts of the situation and kept violating their own rules, then the only option seemed to be direct action – to stop the weapons going there.”
Robin Refualu, charged with two counts of burglary and one count of damaging the drone factory UAV Engines, spoke extensively during his evidence about the time he had spent in Palestine and the direct action he had been involved with there to stop home demolitions and Israeli settlements. During Robin’s cross-examination, he produced a rubber bullet manufactured by IMI Systems (a subsidiary of Elbit). This rubber bullet was shot at Robin while in Palestine. One missed him, while another hit 14 year old Mohammed Tamimi, who was left in a coma for three days.
Genevieve Scherer, 77 years old, spoke about her experience seeing colonialism first-hand growing up in Uganda. She spoke of the futility of charging people with criminal damage when the ones wreaking havoc in Gaza are Elbit Systems and those they arm. Genny told the court that this is how the law in Britain operates, protecting private property over lives, with the British courts and police system ‘based on protecting things like property and profit – it treats property as more important than people‘.
Caroline Brouard spoke of the obligations imposed on people and states to do everything in their power to prevent an ongoing genocide. When governments fail to uphold those duties, the responsibility falls instead to the people. By taking action at UAV Engines, Shenstone, Ms Brouard believed the actions would have an immediate effect on stopping the bombing going on at the time in Gaza: “The drones malfunction all the time, needing replacement parts, and UAV Engines has a 24hr dispatch policy – we stopped these engines getting to Israel and so stopped the drones from flying“.
Jocelyn Cooney, a frontline social worker, described how she started paying attention to the Palestinian cause while working with Oxfam in Canada, having found that – despite the striking parallels between Canada’s ethnic cleansing and that happening in Palestine, the organisation encouraged discussion of the former but forbade discussion of Palestinian issues. Having learned about Elbit a few years before, Ms Cooney became involved with Palestine Action as she felt the need to do something to stop these crimes from taking place, seeing as no other options existed besides direct action.
The defendant, Emily Arnott, charged with one count of damaging property and one count of burglary, described in evidence her time in Palestine, a year spent in Nablus. Ms Arnott described the politicising effect of seeing apartheid operate and the complete domination exercised by Israel over the lives of Palestinians. With 8,000 Palestinians held each year without charge, raids and strikes on refugee camps, and the constant settler violence and seizure of homes – Ms Arnott saw first-hand the role that Elbit Systems plays in maintaining the apartheid walls in arming the occupation regime with the munitions used for these attacks. Returning to Britain to work at a refugee centre, Ms Arnott got involved with Palestine Action to “stop Elbit’s operations so that they wouldn’t be able to contribute to these war crimes”.
Nicola Stickells, charged with criminal damage for the action at UAV Engines, Shenstone, spoke of how the action was necessary – and that “nothing else was working” for people trying to stop the genocide in Palestine. She spoke to what we are seeing underway now, in Gaza, with blatant war crimes – thousands of civilians killed, with the Israeli military “rounding up men.. and taking them to undisclosed places, stripped, kneeling blindfolded, this genocide is occurring as we speak…”. Ms Stickells said that these images reminded her of the mass executions seen in Bosnia: these prompted an international response, seeing as none has come for Gaza, it’s up to people to stop these weapons.
This trial has come at a time of intensive state monitoring, harassment, and prosecution of pro-Palestinian voices and actions – with Palestine Action having been operating under the pressure of the State since our inception. Our activists – hundreds of whom have faced arrest across the three years – have been jailed, held on remand, censored (both in the dock and with stringent bail conditions), have had their homes raided and been surveilled. Activists have spent time in prison for convictions relating to weapons and parts manufacturers Teledyne, APPH, and Israeli-owned Rafael, while dozens of others are currently awaiting trial. And we know that there has been Israeli interference in these cases – both through pressure applied by the Embassy onto the attorney general and through top-level diplomatic meetings between Israeli and British government Ministers.
The public gallery was full on each day of the trial, with protestors assembled outside and daily mobilisations which saw musicians, choirs, supporters, and unions gather in support of Palestine and Palestine Action, along with visits from Defend Our Juries and activists, including rapper Lowkey and Colm Bryce of the Raytheon 9. Palestine Action also offers our thanks and appreciation to CAGE and MPAC for their support throughout the trial. This case was intended to be the Crown’s flagship prosecution to bring down the activists who launched our movement. Having pursued these activists for over three years and having initially brought draconian, overbearing charges, it will be a disappointing Christmas gift for the prosecutor Sally Hobson.
Palestine Action will greet a retrial as our activists greet every court appearance: Another opportunity to expose Elbit in the dock, to prove to the British public that this company has no place in our country. Keep an eye out for an announcement of a scheduled date for the #ElbitSix trial and all upcoming cases.