By Damien Gayle and John Thalassites
Anti-war activists have begun a week of protests in east London in an effort to stop weapons and military equipment arriving at Britain’s biggest arms fair.
The biennial Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI), which bills itself as “the world leading event” for buyers and sellers of military equipment, begins next week at the ExCeL centre in Docklands.
More than 34,000 visitors are expected to attend the arms fair, including delegations from regimes accused of human rights abuses such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, as well as representatives of the world’s 10 biggest arms companies.
Keynote speakers include Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, and Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, as well as the chiefs of staff of the British armed forces.
Thousands of protesters are expected to take action outside the the ExCeL centre throughout the week, with blockades, actions and demonstrations outside all main entrances in an effort to hamper exhibitors from setting up their stands for the four-day event, which opens on 12 September.
Protests on each day will have a different focus, from nuclear weapons to arms to Israel to free movement for people rather than weapons. Opponents to the fair say that some of the world’s most oppressive regimes are represented among buyers.
On Monday, protesters were demonstrating against arms to Israel. By 3pm, police had already made six arrests, according to Kat Hobbs of Campaign Against the Arms Trade.
“Five were arrested for obstructing the highway and one person was arrested when they climbed under one of the vehicles and attached themselves to it,” she said.
Among those arrested was Reverend Enid Gordon, a Methodist minister from North Shields. “I walked in front of the road when I saw a lorry coming, then other people joined. The other people left and I found myself the only one there,” she said.
Gordon said police at the custody suite she was taken to looked embarrassed to find a 4 ft 8 in clergywoman in detention. “The guy behind the counter seemed – and this is body language, so it’s my interpretation – he didn’t want to really be doing it.”
She added: “I didn’t want to be a naughty girl, I just wanted to protest! I know it’s against the law, but I think selling weapons is against the law. I just think we shouldn’t be selling weapons to Israel…and particularly to Saudi Arabia. It’s obscene, it’s against God’s will. I feel this [protesting] is more of God’s will.”
Andrew Smith, of Campaign Against the Arms Trade, which is helping to coordinate protests, said: “DSEI will bring many of the world’s most appalling regimes together with the biggest arms companies.
“Right now UK fighter jets and bombs are playing a central role in the destruction of Yemen; what will be the next atrocity they are used in? War, repression and injustice are fuelled by events like DSEI. It’s time to shut it down for good.”
Last year, nine defendants had charges of obstructing the highway outside DSEI dismissed after they successfully argued that they acted to stop greater crimes being committed using weapons bought in the UK.
“The defendants’ belief that weapons were being sold unlawfully at DSEI was supported by … detailed expert evidence,” said district judge Angus Hamilton as he dismissed the charges at Stratford magistrates court after hearing that illegal items, including torture implements and cluster munitions, had been found to be marketed there in previous years.
Angela Ditchfield, one of the nine defendants prosecuted last year, was present on Monday with her two sons. She said: “the case was stressful in some ways, but nothing compared to what people are going through in other countries where these weapons are in demand. I can’t turn away because things are difficult for me.”
“In some ways, the case strengthened my determination because we had a week of horrific evidence, going into detail about what’s happening in Yemen, and how the famine and cholera there is being fuelled by the British arms trade.”
Adie Mormech, from Manchester, had brought dozens of cardboard coffins, decorated with pictures of Palestinian children killed by Israeli drone strikes. He said he had seen the bloodshed caused by the occupation of Gaza as a teacher there. “Israel is using Gaza as a laboratory,” he said. “It’s testing a product that blows these kids up. I taught a family that lost 29 members in three days.”
He added: “It’s a horrible thing to imagine these little kids in coffins, but these were real kids and we wanted to show the connect between these people making money and this.”
More than 1,600 makers and sellers of weapons and military equipment will exhibit at this year’s DSEI, according to the exhibition’s website. “Visitors can enjoy a range of exciting showcases and demonstrations, visiting ships and world class speakers,” it says.
Published on The Guardian on September 4, 2017.