A week and a half long trial ended yesterday when a London jury found five Palestine Action supporters not guilty after under an hour of deliberation.
This was the first ever Palestine Action jury trial, despite a campaign of direct action lasting more than two years, which activists claim has led to the closure of a weapons factory in Oldham, as well as the London office – which was the target in this case.
On 10 October 2020, during a protest outside the Elbit Systems London headquarters at 77 Kingsway, a car pulled up and several people emerged with buckets of red paint and adapted fire extinguishers.
There was a large police presence already at the protest, and during the attempt to prevent the action and arrest the activists, some officers ended up covered in paint, as well as several Zionist counter-protesters.
At least two of the arrests appeared quite violent, and a Real Media journalist was also assaulted by police (currently the subject of a civil claim).
The Crown Prosecution Service charged five people with conspiracy to commit criminal damage, and after two years the case has come to court.
Neither Elbit nor the owners of the building, LaSalle, appeared in court, although Elbit hired a court reporter who sat in court taking full transcription notes, as they have done at several magistrates trials previously.
Before the case could begin in front of the jury, the barrister for the prosecution asked the judge to rule on what defences could be heard. This is an increasingly common legal process in protest cases, as new rulings (including the recent appeal on the Colston verdict) limit how defendants can justify protest actions.
In this pre-trial case management battle the judge has to rule whether those accused are allowed to defend their actions as an attempt to prevent a greater crime, protect life or property, or exercise their Article 10 and 11 human rights.
In relation to major issues such as climate change or war crimes, there is also a potential defence of ‘belief in consent’ – this is where a defendant believes that if the owners of the building knew all the circumstances (ie how bad climate change really is, or in this case that war crimes are being committed by the tenant) then they would have given consent to the protest.
Sometimes a judge will rule that only one, or even none of those defences can be heard. Sometimes they can be heard by the jury during the course of the trial, but the jury might be instructed to ignore them in their deliberation.
After a day of debate, the judge ruled that the protest had not been peaceful (even though there were no public order assault charges laid), and so withdrew any Article 10/11 defences (which would include that the protest was ‘proportionate’ in relation to war crimes).
After the jury had heard evidence, he also withdrew defences of necessity, prevention of crime, and prevention of property damage (all the stuff around Elbit weaponry being used by Israel to commit war crimes).
We can’t know why the jury acquitted, but legally they were only left with the options that either there was no conspiracy, or that there was no intent to damage, or that the activists genuinely believed the building’s owners would have consented had they known all the circumstances.
What we do know is that in under an hour, the unanimous not guilty verdict was delivered, and Palestine Action see this as a huge first victory over the company, the first time their business has been exposed to 12 randomly selected citizens.
More Kingsway protesters are in court this week – at Highbury Magistrate’s Court – and we expect judgements very soon.
The next big jury trial is currently scheduled for April in Bristol, and then the co-founders of Palestine Action are scheduled for trial along with others in a year’s time in London.
The defendants were instructed by Lydia Dagostino from Kellys Solicitors and represented by Owen Greenhall and Audrey Mogan from Garden Court chambers.