First published by The Guardian, 11th October 2013
The lenient sentence handed to six anti-drones protesters convicted of criminal damage to RAF Waddington this week is “an invitation” for others to do the same, according to one of the activists.
On 3 June this year Susan Clarkson, Christopher Cole, Henrietta Cullinan, Keith Hebden, Martin Newell and Penelope Walker cut a hole in the perimeter fence of the Lincolnshire airbase and walked around inside for 45-60 minutes, handing out leaflets and planting a peace garden consisting of a fig tree and a vine. On Monday Lincoln magistrates ordered the activists to pay £10 to the RAF in compensation, £75 in costs and a £15 victim surcharge. Judge John Stobart said he was handing down his sentence “with a very heavy heart” and told the protesters they were “dutiful people”.
Keith Hebden, an Anglican pastor at St Mark’s in Mansfield, sees the sentence as encouragement from Stobart for other activists and pressure-groups to become involved in similar anti-drone activity. “The £10 fine to the RAF is invitation from the judge for like-minded people to do the same”, he said in an interview with the Guardian this week. The six activists believe RAF Waddington is a “conflict zone on our shores”, said Hebden. He claims that during the trial, the judge interrupted the prosecution to confirm that the base met the criteria for a conflict zone.
The vicar says he is inspired by Jesus’s example of non-violent resistance. “As a Christian I cannot prefer the life of one human being over another on the basis of where they were born. If drones were killing civilians in the UK we’d rise up against that, I don’t see national borders as a barrier to outrage for fellow human beings,” he said. RAF Waddington is the first unmanned drones base in the UK and it is from this base that Reaper aircrafts stationed in Afghanistan are operated. UK Reapers carry GBU-12 bombs and Hellfire missiles, both laser-guided.
Hebden describes the reaction of his congregation to the news of his direct action as mixed, with some pleased members and others who were shocked by the events. During Monday’s court hearing, Hebden’s congregation held a prayer vigil attended by 75 churchgoers. One of the leaders of the vigil has a son in the RAF, currently serving in Afghanistan. Hebden sees the church’s involvement as evidence of a widespread readiness for peace and reconciliation. He says the group are currently taking legal advice on whether to follow the judge’s invitation to appeal the decision but they “certainly are encouraged to keep the pressure on the government to start telling the truth about drones”.
Hebden is committed to activism and has written a book on peaceful means of direct action, that is “written primarily for people of faith, but in a way that includes those who aren’t”. The six activists are made up of members of the Stop the War Coalition, CND, the Drone Campaign Network and War on Want, and all have previously campaigned against drone activity in different locations. They include two pensioners, a partially blind researcher and a Catholic priest from the Passion order. Hebden is hopeful that change will come, stating that at Monday’s hearing “the drones were on trial, and found guilty”.