Shine A Light

Were the Stansted 15 right to stop a UK deportation flight?

While activists learned they would not be jailed for grounding a plane, another deportation flight took off.

Clare Sambrook
6 February 2019
Painting of a crowd of people.

All illustrations by Carrie Mackinnon. All rights reserved.

Fifteen human rights defenders who stopped a UK deportation flight were stunned to be charged and convicted under anti-terrorism legislation. They feared long custodial sentences. This morning, at Chelmsford Crown Court, they learned that they would not be jailed. Meanwhile in Birmingham another deportation flight took off. 

Action and trial

At London Stansted Airport on the night of 28 March 2017, wearing hi-viz pink vests, 15 activists locked themselves to a plane being chartered by the Home Office. 

They sought to prevent the removal of 60 people to Nigeria and Ghana under a dangerous Home Office programme called “Operation Majestic”. They claimed they acted to prevent harm and protect human rights. 

Towards the end of their nine-week trial late last year Judge Christopher Morgan told the jury to disregard all the evidence that the 15 acted to stop human rights abuses. Defence barristers said this amounted to a direction to convict. Judge Morgan dismissed their concerns. 

After three days’ deliberation the jury found the 15 guilty under the 1990 Aviation and Maritime Security Act. That legislation was passed in response to the UK’s deadliest terror attack, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie with the loss of 270 lives.

Illustration. Woman wearing headscarf, carrying a calendar.

The 15’s lawyer Raj Chada, a partner at Hodge Jones & Allen, said the use of terror legislation against his clients “was an abuse of power by the attorney general and the CPS. It is only right and fitting that this wrongful conviction is overturned.” The 15 are appealing their conviction.


Were they right to stop the plane?

The activists’ defence was that they genuinely believed that criminal offences were likely to occur on the flight or on arrival in Ghana and Nigeria, and that they acted to prevent those offences from occurring. They argued that they genuinely believed that people on the flight were at risk of death or injury, that their belief was reasonable, as were their actions in trying to stop the flight.

The Stansted 15’s case and the Guardian’s campaigning journalism around the Windrush scandal have heightened awareness of the UK’s punitive, ideologically-driven immigration policy and dangerous practices that have been going on for many years. 

Here at Shine A Light we’ve spent 10 years investigating the UK’s immigration and removal system. We publish articles by lawyers and medical practitioners, by freelance reporters and researchers, by activists, and by parliamentarians including former chief inspector of prisons Lord Ramsbotham. Our articles, rigorously researched and referenced, have been cited in House of Commons debates, in parliamentary committees, in academic journals, by NGOs including Liberty.

This article recalls just a few significant incidents.

Joy Gardner

Joy Gardner was a 40 year old mature student living in Crouch End, London when officers from the Metropolitan Police Alien Deportation Group broke into her home, strapped a belt around her legs, bound her head with 13 feet of tape and suffocated her in front of her 5 year old son. Joy Gardner hailed from Jamaica. This happened in July 1993. Three police officers were tried on manslaughter charges in 1995 and acquitted. The Met disbanded its Alien Deportation Group.

Outsourcing Abuse

In 2008, the charity Medical Justice and lawyers Birnberg Peirce published a dossier called Outsourcing Abuse, that recorded racist and intimidatory behaviour, injuries to detainees, and dangerous restraint techniques used by commercial contractors during the detention and removal of asylum seekers and other migrants. 

The then Labour government commissioned Baroness Nuala O’Loan to lead an independent inquiry. Reporting back in 2010, O’Loan found “inadequate management of the use of force by the private security companies”. She made 22 recommendations for change. The Home Office response? The Border Agency’s chief executive Lin Homer attacked the doctors and lawyers who had brought the abuses to light. She accused them of “seeking to damage the reputation of our contractors”.

Illustration. Women wearing headscarf holding calendar. Close up of her face.

Jimmy Mubenga

A few months after that, Jimmy Mubenga died while being subjected to the same restraint techniques that the doctors and lawyers had warned against. Mubenga was 46 and father to five children. An inquest jury concluded that he’d been unlawfully killed as three G4S guards heavily restrained him. Two of those guards had extreme racist material on their mobile phones that had been shared among colleagues. For a laugh. All three guards were cleared of manslaughter by a trial jury that was not allowed to know about the racist material. 

The case of “FW”

Jimmy Mubenga had been dead just over a year when, on Christmas Eve 2011, another 46 year old man was brutally assaulted by guards employed by the company that replaced G4S as the Home Office escort contractor. It was Reliance, since renamed Tascor. The High Court later found that FW (name withheld at his request) had suffered serious physical injuries as a result of the assault, as well as severe psychiatric injuries and awarded him exemplary damages in June 2017.

The judgment describes a chain of events triggered by serious blunders at Theresa May’s Home Office in 2011. The removal itself was unlawful. The High Court found that Reliance/Tascor guards had falsified documents, and staff had referred to FW, who is a black man, as “Bruno”. 

Before he was placed on the plane FW had correctly informed the guards that they were acting unlawfully. They laughed at him and told him they were “not bothered”. Five officers pinned him down on the floor of the aircraft aisle and assaulted him. FW had known Jimmy Mubenga and believed that he was going to die the same way. CCTV footage showed FW being dragged into a van by his cuffed arms, crying out in pain. 

Family of man, woman, two small children. Women holds a baby. All standing. Full body illustration.

The High Court concluded that Tascor’s staff had routinely used unapproved, intensely painful and dangerous restraint techniques, that were “utterly unacceptable”. FW’s lawyer, Gareth Mitchell of Deighton Pierce Glynn, wrote here on Shine A Light that the award of exemplary damages reflected the High Court’s identification of disregard for the law at a corporate level.

Anger and concern at House of Lords

In a parliamentary debate on the Border Agency in July 2012 peers spoke out against the culture of disbelief, the abuse of torture victims, the death of Jimmy Mubenga, the denial of legal representation, dawn raids on pregnant mothers, the perils of outsourcing to security companies, “disgraceful” and “deplorable” short-term holding facilities for children at Heathrow Airport, and more. 

About the escort contractor Reliance, Lord Avebury said the company “admits that its staff are loutish and aggressive and lack respect for minorities and women”. 

Torture victims were “routinely being held in immigration detention centres in breach of the Immigration Rules”, Avebury said, and: “The effects of wrongful detention on these torture victims were catastrophic, including attempted suicide, self-harm and hunger strikes.”

Roseline Akhalu

Disregard for the law at the very top of Theresa May’s Home Office featured in the case of Roseline Akhalu, a kidney transplant patient May’s department hounded over years to prove a wrong-headed point about so-called “health tourism”. That’s the practice of travelling to the UK in order to benefit from NHS treatment. 

The Home Office knew that Roseline Akhalu was not by any stretch a “health tourist”. In Nigeria she’d won a highly competitive Ford Foundation scholarship to study in the UK, at Leeds University. Three years after that she fell dangerously ill. Her renal specialist testified that her illness was sudden, impossible to predict. After multiple legal challenges, a community campaign, and media coverage including more than a dozen articles here on Shine A Light, the Home Office granted Akhalu leave to remain.

We published Akhalu’s own account of her 200 mile journey in March 2012 from Leeds, via Manchester, to Yarl’s Wood detention centre, near Luton Airport, in the custody of guards from Reliance. Parked up at their unit office for a staff changeover, guards refused to let Akhalu use the toilet. They insisted she stay in the van and urinate into a plastic bag. The only one they had was designed for men. Akhalu used the bag—in full view of CCTV cameras. 

“This cruel treatment made me suffer a serious urinary tract infection on my arrival at Yarl’s Wood because I had to sit on my wet clothes till we got to Yarl’s Wood at 10.30 PM,” Akhalu wrote. 

“I was subsequently treated for this by the Yarl’s Wood doctors. It caused me depression as I still find it difficult to comprehend the whole incident.”

We’ve learned of other reports of people wetting themselves after Home Office contractors refused to let them use a toilet. Maybe, like those G4S racist jokes, it’s some guards’ idea of entertainment. Akhalu reckoned: “This was done with the intent and purpose to torture, degrade, dehumanise, disrespect and humiliate me.”

In May 2012 Roseline Akhalu was driven all the way back from Yarl’s Wood to Leeds for a hospital appointment with her renal team. Here’s what happened at the hospital. “The officer insisted on handcuffing me not because she feared I will escape but because she wanted to humiliate me psychologically,” Akhalu wrote in evidence to the all party parliamentary inquiry on immigration detention. “To make me feel lower than the lowest, humiliated, demonised, criminalised and tortured.” The guard led her by a chain: “I felt very ashamed in the presence of the nurses and doctors I usually laugh and joke with as they saw me being led like a common criminal. I wept on the day because of the shame and disgrace those handcuffs gave me.”

What happened to Roseline Akhalu is not exceptional. These things happen. Sometimes to people who don’t survive to speak of their experience.

Woman sitting along in a corner. Surrounded by sheets of paper.

Alois Dvorzak

In February 2013 Home Office contractors shackled an 84 year old Canadian man by a chain as he lay dying in Hillingdon Hospital. One excuse was that escapes triggered financial penalties. Alois Dvorzak had been seized by the immigration authorities after arriving, confused and vulnerable, at Gatwick Airport.

Tahir Mehmood

At a Manchester Airport immigration lock-up in July 2013, a 43 year old chef from Pakistan complained of chest pains. Staff fobbed him off. Tahir Mehmood collapsed and died. A Capita guard told the inquest that he hadn’t been trained in what to do when someone stopped breathing. “I learnt ABC [Airway, Breathing, Circulation] but did not check his breath.”

Rubel Ahmed

At Morton Hall immigration lock-up in Lincolnshire, Rubel Ahmed was found hanging in his cell on 5 September 2014. He was 26 years old. Morton Hall’s Centre Manager accepted in her evidence to the inquest into his death that locking detainees in their rooms was dangerous and that there were lessons to be learned from Rubel’s death.

Women at Yarl’s Wood
Mum with three children holding a sheet of paper

Headbutt the bitch, I’d beat her up,” said one Serco guard, caught on camera at Yarl's Wood detention centre by a Channel 4 news reporter working undercover in 2015.

“Let them slash their wrists,” said another.

“I allegedly walked into somebody’s room without knocking,” another Serco man joked to colleagues. “I just like tits. I’m addicted to the viewing of tits.”

Over years, women have made allegations of sexual assault by guards at Yarl’s Wood. 'Tanja', a 23 year old held at Yarl's Wood for 110 days in 2013, claimed that one guard had forced oral sex upon her and another guard exposed his genitals. She said guards targeted vulnerable young women newly arrived at Yarl's Wood.

Children robbed of parents

Handwritten letter

A child's plea. This 10 year old's dad was deported in 2017.

Children are routinely bereaved of their parents by a Home Office bent on deportation at all costs. “To them it’s just another number, someone else being sent back. But when you’ve got three children being left without their dad … it’s quite major,” one mother told Shine A Light in 2017 after her partner was deported.

Their 10 year old son hand-wrote a letter: 

Dear Judge,

 I would like you to please bring our dad home because he is a very big part of our family. He has been doing a lot for us, since our mum has been working, and without him there are a lot of things changing for us. He cannot take me or my brothers to our clubs anymore, and our mum has to cut back on working hours to do so. He isn’t here to help me with our homework and me and my brother can’t watch movies with him anymore either. May I ask how you would feel if you could not do any fun things with your father as a child. And so I am asking you to please bring our father home.

Illustration. Family, mum and children erased, only outline showing. Dad coloured in.

Carlington Spencer 

In October 2017 a 38 year old man called Carlington Spencer died after collapsing in the Lincolnshire immigration lockup, Morton Hall. We’ve been investigating. We’ll publish a series of articles once the law permits, after the inquest into his death has concluded.


At least 37 people have died in immigration lockups or shortly after release since 1989 according to records kept by the Institute of Race Relations. That’s not counting the terrible deaths of Joy Gardner and Jimmy Mubenga. Nor do those figures reflect the psychological harm done to the people who are detained and the people who love them. The figures can’t show the harm done to children scarred by worry and uncertainty, who may be robbed of their parents by detention or deportation. 

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons holds detainee escort inspection reports here, including several on the Nigeria-Ghana run. Inspectors reported many concerns. They include: 

• overuse of extreme forms of restraint which caused injury;

• a woman forced to urinate while being held by two male escort officers;

• use of “highly offensive and sometimes racist language” and racist mockery by escort officers;

• “forceful and aggressive” behaviour including “physical assault” by Nigerian officials who boarded a plane in Lagos;

• lack of appropriate care for people at risk of self-harm. 

All this happened when prisons inspectors were aboard. What goes on in the normal course of things on Operation Majestic flights? Imagine that.

This article records just a few instances of avoidable harm and suffering, damage that rarely makes the mainstream media. 

Group of people walking, all holding papers.

Thanks to government disinformation, media distortions and under-reporting there’s a gap between what most people know of these things and what’s experienced by the people who are detained, what’s known by the people who love them, the friends who visit them, what’s known by allies who care about human rights. Those allies include the Stansted 15 who each learned something of the damage and did something about it.

This morning at Chelmsford Crown Court the Stansted 15 heard that they had escaped custodial sentences. Meanwhile, at Birmingham Airport, a Titan Airways flight carrying Home Office captives took off for Jamaica. Many of those aboard had arrived in the UK as children, and leave children here behind them. Bereaved.

Today the sister-in-law of one man on the flight tweeted: “Last night my sister packed a bag for her husband of 20 years to be deported. I sat with her at 3.30am as we waited for possible news of a reprieve. It didn't come. That’s my baby sister, I can’t help her or my niece & nephew, words can't express how we feel right now.”

Outline of man and woman dancing


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