Four women versus British Aerospace &&


In a Liverpool court on July 30, four members of the British Ploughshares organisation were cleared of criminal damage after the jury accepted their claim to have had a lawful excuse to disarm a Hawk jet fighter to prevent its use by the Indonesians to carry out genocide against the civilian population of East Timor. The following account of the case by JOHN PILGER first appeared in the New Statesman shortly before the trial.

There has been little to read about the courageous and important stand of four women who go on trial in Liverpool next week.

They are Joanna Wilson, Lotta Kronlid, Andrea Needham and Angie Zelter, who in the early hours of a freezing January morning cut through the perimeter fence at the British Aerospace plant at Warton in Lancashire and disarmed a Hawk fighter aircraft with household hammers. They did such a fine job that the military dictatorship in Indonesia, to which the plane was to be delivered the next day, has demanded a completely new one.

They have been charged with conspiracy to cause criminal damage, which might seem like a parody were it not for the prospect of a prison sentence; the Hawk was one of 24 ordered by a regime which, according to a welter of documentation, has extinguished more than a third of the population of East Timor. That is more than 200,000 people, or proportionally more than Pol Pot killed in Cambodia and more than Hitler killed in the Holocaust. In its epic, malfeasant effect on the fabric of a single society, the Indonesian genocide in East Timor is arguably the greatest crime of the second half of the 20th century.

Of course there has been no call by governments and the UN for a war crimes tribunal similar to the one currently pronouncing guilt in the Balkans. The reason for this is that the principal accessories to the East Timor crime and the suppliers of its most effective tools have been the western powers, notably the British and US governments.

When the forces of General Suharto were thrown back by Fretilin, the East Timorese resistance, in the years immediately following the Indonesian invasion in 1975, US-supplied Skyhawk and Bronco aircraft came to their rescue. These turned the tide. Flying at low-level altitudes through the Matabean mountains, they were able to attack the civilian population which had fled the coastal towns.

In 1978 the Labour foreign secretary, David Owen, approved the sale of Hawk "trainers" to the Indonesians. In seeking to justify this, Owen said that the estimates of the killings in East Timor had been "exaggerated" and that the scale of fighting "has been greatly reduced". The opposite was true. The genocide was then reaching its height, as shipments of US aircraft parts and ammunition were secretly approved by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

The British Hawks, sold with kits that enabled them to be converted to anything but trainers, were perfectly suited to their new task. "These British aircraft", said the Center for Defense Information in Washington, "are designed to be used against guerrillas who come from and move among civilian populations ... they shoot high velocity cannon and deliver ordnance at low levels against unprotected human beings."

Like thousands of other Britons, the four women wrote letters to the government, lobbied their MPs and took part in peaceful demonstrations to protest against the sale — and were ignored. They took the logical next step. They invoked the Criminal Law Act 1967 (section three), which says everybody has a right to use reasonable means, not excluding force, in the prevention of a crime. In court they will argue that Britain is aiding and abetting genocide in East Timor and that, under international law, all of us have a duty to refuse any part in war crimes (Nuremberg Principle VII).

Jo, Angie, Lott and Andrea belong to a group called "Seeds of Hope — East Timor Ploughshares", inspired by the biblical injunction to "beat swords into ploughshares". Their action, says Ploughshares, is the first of its kind carried out by women only.

Certainly it was a masterpiece of planning and execution. Having damaged much of the sensitive equipment in the nose cone, they left a videotape in the pilot's seat, explaining that they had done it to prevent genocidal killing. The ineptitude of British Aerospace security gave them two peaceful hours in which to complete their work. It was about five in the morning when they phoned me at home and left a message to say they were waiting around for someone to come to arrest them. They sounded exuberant and quite unafraid.

I and many others have been helping them prepare their defence, and with each of Jo Wilson's meticulous letters from Risley Prison I have been struck by the eloquence of their determination to take on the British state in one of its darkest recesses. At Risley they have been classified a "security risk", even though they have no intention of trying to escape or of evading the consequences of their actions. Michael Howard's servitors will have difficulty understanding this. "Whatever else happens", writes Jo, "I feel strangely content".

The state, through its propaganda, has sought, with some success, to separate the wholly corrupt arms industry, and its pinstriped vendors and barkers, from the result of its products. Fathers still bring small boys to Farnborough to watch the sleek and clever British-made machines with their livery of tyrannies.

As the Prince of Wales said at the Dubai arms fair, where he was promoting British arms, "We're really rather good at making certain kinds of weapons. Anyway, if we don't sell them, someone else will." The immorality and idle culpability of this worn-out statement was made vivid by the fact that the prince was standing next to a British-made "anti-personnel" bomb that sprays hundreds of pieces of shrapnel, like razor blades, and which was developed during the Vietnam War for use against civilians. The Hawks drop this sort of bomb in East Timor.

There is something especially edifying about the bravery and resolve of the Ploughshares women. They illuminate the moral chasm between people and state power, and they embody the antithesis of the Pinstripe Morality; indeed they expose its direct line to the spilt blood that comes with every Hawk.

They also shame those in journalism who censor them by wilfully ignoring them.

Among those in Liverpool to support them will be several exiled East Timorese, including Jos Amorin Dias, whose family hid in caves as they were bombed repeatedly by Hawks, and Jose Ramos-Horta, who speaks for Xanana Gusmao, the resistance leader now serving 20 years in an Indonesian jail. "We shall always remember you", Ramos-Horta wrote to the four women. "In 20 years of resistance, we were never able to shoot down an aircraft. You did it without even firing a single shot and without hurting the pilot. Keep up your courage. A big hug to you all."