Thursday 19 March 2009

Gateway for peace or criminal damage? Court decides against Catholic Workers

Two Catholic Workers, Susan Clarkson and Martin Newell cp, were convicted of "criminal damage" at Watford Magistrates Court this morning (Thursday April 19th) following an act of witness to mark the Catholic 'Feast of the Holy Innocents' in December 2008 at Northwood Military Headquarters in north west London. Clarkson and Newell pled "not guilty" and defended themselves on legal, moral and religious grounds. Despite the prosecution admitting that no-one saw the pair entering the base, they agreed that they had cut through the perimeter fence to make the gateway and entered the base to pray for peace. They were found guilty of 'criminal damage' and ordered to pay fines and costs of £920 each. They will be refuse to pay, risking prison sentences.

In court, they stated that they had cut open the fence to make a “gateway for peace”, "to prepare a way for the Lord" and to open up public access to this highly secretive, mostly underground, base where a billion pound building project is going on.

The pair were arrested on December 29th 2008 after being inside the base for over half an hour. They had spent another half hour cutting the gateway into the base, leaving signs showing victims of aerial bombing in Afghanistan which Northwood would have been involved in through military planning, co-ordination and relaying communications. They also hung signs saying “Stop Bombing Afghanistan”, "Bring the Troops Home", “Gateway for Peace” and “Make a Way for the Lord”. On being stopped by military personnel, they handed in a 'Statement of Faith'. (see below)

Other members of Catholic Worker communities held vigil at the front entrance reading the names of British and Afghani war dead. During the arrests, sirens and public address messages from within the base could be heard announcing "Operation Round Up" and a return of all staff to buildings as the base's security response was put in place.

Northwood Military Headquarters (official name: Northwood JSU - 'Joint Support Unit') is the command centre for all British forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is a 43 acre site in suburban London accommodating over 2,000 military and civilian personnel. Just before Christmas two British soldiers had committed suicide in Basra while the 136th British soldier to die in Afghanistan was killed on Christmas Eve. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission estimates over 750 Afghani civilians have been killed by Western forces in 2008.

During cross examination, Newell's arresting officer agreed that the legality of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had been questioned in the courts, and that to his knowledge to police had not investigated activities at Northwood HQ. In addition, the main prosecution witness, a member of NATO staff from the base, denied knowing about NATO involvement in the war in Afghanistan.

Susan Clarkson lives and works at the Oxford Catholic Worker house at St Francis House, Cowley Road OX4.

Martin Newell is a Catholic priest and a member of the Passionist Order. He lives and works with the London Catholic Worker at Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House, 16 De Beauvior Road, Hackney, London N1 5SU

Both live and work with refugees from areas of the world affected by violent conflict, including Afghanistan and Iraq.