Gaby Rubin travelled to Wolverhampton to show solidarity with Tony Greenstein and four other Palestine Action activists
Several times I have supported students and friends accused of illegal action as a witness and have been a juror too, and I have always found courtrooms intimidating. However, I have never heard a judge pretend he was a prosecutor and display his bias so clearly as the one I saw in Wolverhampton on September 6.
The details and history of their case are covered by Tony Greenstein, the most well-known defendant, in his blog. Suffice to say that several people were stopped by the police in a van going up north. They never reached their target, which was a factory owned by Elbit Systems - a business that makes drones and other materiel for dodgy governments, including Israel, of course. I was a rather horrified observer at the sentencing procedure, which followed by some months the actual trial.
Most judges try to maintain the appearance of indifference. Not this one. The first person whose case was called believed that “there was a real possibility that the tribunal [in the previous trial] was biased”. The judge, Michael Chambers - who was also in that position at the tribunal - gave a lengthy rendition of what had gone before. He ruled that he would not recuse himself because he had reviewed all of his transcripts and was convinced that he had shown no bias. I should have been forewarned.
In a sentencing hearing, each defence barrister must come up with arguments in mitigation of their client’s possible sentence. (Given that all five defendants believed they probably would be sentenced to prison, they had all brought their ‘prison suitcases’ with them.) The sentencing followed what I began to see was a well travelled path.
The judge summed up the details of the trial and was particularly strenuous in talking about his belief, which was that “each and every defendant” had an intention to use the crowbars and sledgehammers found in the van they were in when they were stopped and arrested. He recited previous occasions on which Elbit had been targeted, outlining especially the amount of damage caused, which he then used to indict each defendant verbally to show how much similar damage they might have done in this case. Chambers said that he believed that the defendants gave false accounts during their trial. He used the phrase “I don’t believe you” half a dozen times for each defendant.
The judge summed up his approach to sentencing. He used what sounded to me like an algorithm to decide what a sentence would be (so much for culpability in intending to cause damage, or carrying out an action where damage could be foreseen - without allowing for the fact that they never got there). “After all, this was a revenge attack.” This statement was never challenged and was repeated, but revenge against whom and for what was never explained. The maximum sentence was 10 years and the offence “crossed the custody threshold”, said the judge, who referred to the defendants as “so-called protestors”.
Chambers cited the amount of time the police had to spend dealing with cases like this (not just this one, you understand) and felt this had to be taken into account. He repeated several times that the public was becoming fed up with protests like this and that there were “plenty of democratic means of protesting” instead.
The defendants did not speak - they sat enclosed in a glass-fronted room (which had opaque stripes, looking much like cell bars). The entire conversation was between the judge and the barristers, including two who were online.
Each defendant had had to go through visits by various court-appointed organisations to see how much of a ‘danger’ they posed as to reoffending, and whether they had been arrested/charged with any offence before. These were read out by their barristers.
Tony Greenstein’s barrister was particularly good. She was polite, but feisty, answering each of the judge’s objections and explaining with clarity why Tony should not be incarcerated. Nor did she let the judge get away with any disparagement. For those who know Tony, it was slightly amusing to hear a discussion about whether he would be suitable for community service, because after all, even with his disabilities, he could always work in a shop.
Another defendant was a 26-year-old Palestinian, Ibrahim Samadi, and his barrister was also very good in trying to convince the judge that people with his background would always be committed to pro-Palestine action, “but not necessarily this type”. Chambers stated that the evidence this young man had given was not credible, and that he was “manipulative and devious”. The judge would not take into account a previous decision that young people between 18 and 25 should be treated with leniency, given that he had been arrested at the age of 23.
The last defendant, Jeremy Parker, had had two previous convictions for similar activities. The judge believed he was the one most responsible for the organisation, the recruitment and in taking orders for the damage to be done (“If he wasn’t the general, he certainly was a lieutenant colonel”). The barrister attempted to argue that conscientious motivation should be a factor, but the judge dismissed that with the statement, “This was a factor, but others are more important”.
Chambers then summed up by repeating that each defendant intended to cause damage - each was prepared to use those sledgehammers - and there was a high degree of forethought and organisation, because, after all, this was a “revenge attack”. He then went on to say that 18 months for someone with no previous prison sentence seemed correct (allowing for some reduction due to the fact that they never reached their destination). At this point, I am sure that every person in the court was convinced that the defendants would be going to prison.
Each was asked to stand in the glass room, Tony Greenstein first. The judge said he was not convinced that Tony did not intend to reoffend, but sentenced him to nine months, suspended for two years (if he reoffended during those two years he would immediately be jailed). He was told he would also have to do 80 hours of ‘community service’. The other defendants were then also given suspended sentences, along with community service. Most had nine months suspended. After yet another diatribe, the “lieutenant colonel” received 18 months of a suspended sentence. But they were all going home!
A large number of those in the courtroom and, seconds later, all the people waiting outside the courtroom, erupted with joy. Everyone was hugging, laughing, talking, waving flags and one person (not a defendant) was crying with relief.
I was both bemused and angry by the end of the process - although also very pleased, of course. I say ‘bemused’, because after three and a half hours of disparaging each defendant, the judge then backed away from sending them to prison - I can only assume that he decided that the publicity he would have gotten from such sentencing would have outweighed any satisfaction he might have felt. But I was ‘angry’, because the actual process was so bound up with the judge’s clearly stated prejudices.
Oscar Wilde once said that military music is to music as military justice is to justice. After this example I would amend it a little, with apologies to musicians: ‘Military music is to music as English justice is to justice’.