Thursday, December 11, 2008

Peace activists get suspended sentences, probation for protest at military factory

Peace activists get suspended sentences, probation for protest at military factory
by Bob Mitchell, from The Toronto Star, December 10, 2008.

Ten peace activists were given suspended sentences today after being found guilty of trespassing on the property of a Burlington company that makes military guidance systems for missiles.

Justice of the Peace Ken Dechert also placed the accused, most of whom are either senior citizens or middle-aged men and women, on a year's probation that prevents them from staging a similar demonstration.

"It's an outrageous decision," said Matthew Behrens, who was among those found guilty of trespassing two years ago on the property of a company known as L-3 Wescam on the North Service Rd., which makes hi-tech optical surveillance equipment for military purposes, including operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"By putting us on probation, the judge has sent a message that this company has the right to violate international law and trespass on the rights and lives of others in Afghanistan and Iraq and if you speak out, you will go to jail," Behrens said outside the courtroom.

Five of the 10 accused appeared in court today.

After Dechert delivered his nearly two-hour judgement, all of the defendants asked that no punishment be given to them, including one woman who stood and sang a British peace song.

". . . you can't shut my mouth when I sing," Kirsten Jones, 71, of Toronto sang, referring to the fact the protesters said they only wanted to speak with company executives to get them to stop manufacturing military weaponry the day of their arrests.

In convicting them, Dechert ruled that their "justification defence" for their actions of Nov. 20, 2006 didn't override the company's legal right to prohibit people on its property.

At their trial earlier this year, various defendants testified that they "honestly believed" they had an obligation under either international law or God's will to seek a non-violent way of trying to convince the company to stop producing weaponry.

Even though they were told in advance not to cross a spray-painted line on the company's property, they did so in an attempt to speak with company officials, court heard.

Halton Police arrested them after they sat on the ground and refused to leave the premises.

It was their belief the production of the hi-tech optical military surveillance systems used in unmanned drones made Wescam a party to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

It was their defence that based on the terms of the Nuremberg principles, they had the right under international law to defy the wishes of the company.

Dechert could have imposed a fine of up to $2,000 but he told the defendants that he didn't think a fine would "serve any purpose" as a punishment.

He said there was no doubt their reasons for trespassing were driven by their "strong moral" and in some cases "religious convictions" but, nevertheless, they broke the law.

While Dechert believed "they honestly believed" they had a "moral obligation," they didn't have any "legal interest" in the property that would allow them to defy the company's right to prohibit them from entering the property.

Behren described today's decision as being "dangerous" in the sense that if Wescam decided they didn't want "Jews on their property" they could order them removed because their rights as "legal land owner" trumped other rights.

Behrens said the peace activists have tried to meet with company executives for six years without any success.

"The probation order effectively says we can't have a dialogue with Wescam because the minute we set foot on their property, whether we're carrying a picket sign or not, we will be booted off and charged," he said.

Today's verdict came more than two years after their arrests and on the 60th anniversary of Human Rights Day.

Dechert noted there was no damage done to any property and nobody was injured and "true to their peaceful convictions" they didn't struggle when arrested.

About 40 people actually participated in the noon-hour protest that day.

Some of the defendants are members of a group known as Homes not Bombs, a collection of peace and social justice groups and individuals from across southern Ontario.

Court heard today how one of the defendants, David Milne, 61, of Bellville said at trial how he was "compelled by God" to seek a meeting with company executives the day of the protest.

Also convicted today were Gail Lorimer, Francis Barningham, Margaret Panter, Behrens, Daniel Hilton, David Marshall, James Smith and Thomas York.

No comments: