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'A Triumph for the Movement': Heathrow 13 Protesters Avoid Jail Time

Climate activists received suspended six-week sentences from UK judge in long-awaited ruling

Thirteen protesters averted a jail sentence for a 2015 action that drew attention to air pollution from Heathrow. (Photo: Plane Stupid)

Climate justice activists widely known as the "Heathrow 13," after their July 2015 occupation of a Heathrow runway to protest the airport's planned expansion, learned to their surprise on Wednesday that they would avoid jail time.

"I’m so relieved," protester Danielle Paffard told the Guardian. "It’s a triumph for democracy, a triumph for the movement."

"If you think about it, it’s not extraordinary that 13 activists took peaceful, non-violent action to try to stop such a folly. What’s extraordinary is that there were just 13 of them."—Emma Thompson and Alistair McGowan

The newspaper reported that the defendants had argued during the trial "that their actions were reasonable, proportionate and necessary to prevent death and serious injury via air pollution and climate change, saying that 31 people a year die prematurely around Heathrow due to its pollution, and thousands die due to the effects of climate change."

"History will judge the greater threat to our society," observed Friends of the Earth campaigner Liz Hutchins on Wednesday, "Climate change or those who protest peacefully in a bid to protect people from its devastating effects."

The network of grassroots groups behind the Heathrow protest, Plane Stupid, organized the July occupation of the runway because the proposed construction of a third runway at the airport would be "inhumane to the local residents and those at the sharp end of climate change, and hugely environmentally destructive," the group said.

District Judge Deborah Wright handed down six-week suspended sentences and community service, and also banned the protesters from Heathrow for a year.

Justice Wright characterized the passengers who suffered from resulting flight delays as "victims," which stood in stark contrast to the activists' emphasis on local deaths from air pollution.

Greenpeace on Wednesday published an open letter for support written by the English actors Emma Thompson and Alistair McGowan, who wrote, "If you think about it, it’s not extraordinary that 13 activists took peaceful, non-violent action to try to stop such a folly. What’s extraordinary is that there were just 13 of them."

There's something in the air...

The Heathrow 13 were the subject of headlines around the globe after their early-morning occupation caused flights to be cancelled and delayed at the large transportation hub. Before the sentencing, it was widely speculated that they would be the first climate protesters to be jailed in Britain.

Plane Stupid had previously criticized the court proceedings and reported in a January press release that "[m]ost of the defence’s witness evidence was not heard in court, and none of the witnesses were allowed to appear in court."

In her sentencing remarks (pdf), Justice Wright praised the protesters for their commitment and integrity: "There can be no doubt that  you are all very committed to tackling the problems of global warming and that you acted as you did on the 13th July in what you genuinely believed was in the best interests of the public and society as a whole. You are all principled people. As I said when I found you guilty I accept that you are people of integrity."

The Heathrow 13 were arrested after their July 13th occupation of a Heathrow runway to protest the airport's planned expansion. (Photo: Plane Stupid)

Justice Wright went on to note that she had received many character references for the protesters, and that she "can’t fail to be impressed by the quality of those references or the people who were willing to attest to your character as decent people."

Such comments ring as high praise from a judge who had initially emphasized the "astronomical costs" of the group's actions and assured the activists that it was "almost inevitable" that they would "all receive custodial sentences," according to the Guardian, when she found the group guilty of aggravated trespass in January.

"Clearly, none of us would choose to go to jail," the Heathrow 13 told the Guardian before the sentencing, "but this shouldn’t be singled out as the main 'injustice'. Climate change is the real injustice, with the majority of the world’s population, those in the global south, being the ones who continue to be most affected."

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