As has been reported in the Jewish Chronicle, last week four anti-Ahava activists stood trial for entering Ahava. The activists lay down on the floor and locked themselves onto a heavy concrete block causing Ahava to shut down and lose business.
There were two separate incidents.
The first incident, involving two activists, took place on 2nd October 2010 and the second, involving another two activists, on 22nd November 2010. Fellow activists helped to carry the concrete block into the store on each occasion.
The two incidents were combined into one trial, but the four defendants were charged slightly differently.
The two activists from 2nd October were charged with aggravated trespass under S68 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, while the activists from 22nd November were charged with not obeying a police officer after being asked to leave under S69 of the same act.
The trial lasted three days. I arrived half way through day two and for the remaining one and a half days sat in the public gallery next to anti-Ahava activists. Some were dressed in “boycott Israel” T-shirts and others wore “boycott Israel” badges.
The Ahava staff and relevant police officers had already given evidence but I followed the examination and cross-examination of the four defendants.
I expected debate over the legality of the “settlements”, one of which houses the Ahava factory at Mitzpe Shalem (Ahava’s HQ is in Tel Aviv).
The Defence claimed that the “settlements” were illegal and that this tainted all Ahava’s activity as illegal and that the defendants were merely trying to stop this illegal activity when they entered the store on the dates in question.
Under S69 an offence is committed if a police officer “reasonably believes” that an aggravated trespass has been committed and having asked the people to leave they fail to do so as soon as is practicable, as was claimed happened on 22nd November 2010.
The Defence arguments under S69 centred around the suggestion that the police officer could not have formed such a reasonable belief because he did not, for example, read the leaflets presented to him by the activists or phone up Camden Trading Standards to enquire about the ongoing investigation into Ahava’s labeling.
The defendants also claimed they could not have left when asked as they were locked to the concrete block, although the Prosecution queried whether this defence could apply when the activists had intentionally got themselves into that position.
The Prosecution also queried whether the activists could have asked their friends for help in lifting the concrete block and removing it from Ahava. The Defence said that this was a physical impossibility once the activists had locked themselves to the concrete block. They would have to wait to be cut free by the police.
Ongoing domestic investigations against Ahava were a part of the Defence’s case, although Mr Milner, prosecuting, said that there were no outstanding convictions against Ahava.
On the definition of “lawful activity” in S68 Mr Milner asked each of the four defendants whether it was possible for someone to consider the “settlements” to be legal (in contrast, no one would consider murder to be legal)? Each defendant said it was possible, although they wouldn’t agree with that notion themselves.
He also questioned them as to why, for example, they didn’t wait for the outcome of the investigations against Ahava, particularly that undertaken by Camden.
The Defendants felt that all the investigations were getting nowhere. They felt that Camden was dragging its feet and that questions asked in Parliament about Ahava by Dr Phyllis Starkey and Andy Slaughter MP were not acted upon. Therefore, they felt they had no choice but to do what they did.
Mr Milner also put it to the Defendants that Ahava sold certain products that were not from Israel and that, for example, the staff were employed lawfully. Therefore, the defendants were, at least in part, obstructing “lawful activity”. The Defendants replied that all Ahava’s activities were tainted by illegality.
Mr Milner suggested that the actions of the activists amounted to vigilantism and that in a democracy people do not normally act in this way, but go about other ways of protesting something they dislike.
He quoted Lord Hoffman’s obiter dictum in R v Jones (2006). For example, at paragraph 82 Lord Hoffman said:
“The law will not tolerate vigilantes. If the citizen cannot get the courts to order the law enforcement authorities to act (compare R v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, Ex p Blackburn  2 QB 118) then he must use democratic methods to persuade the government or legislature to intervene.”
CCTV footage was played of the activists entering Ahava. We saw an Ahava member of staff running forward to try to prevent the activists locking themselves to the concrete block. This went to the question of possible intimidation under S68.
The Ahava member of staff was also concerned that she would lose money if she couldn’t reach her bonus target if Ahava had to close while the activists were inside.
The Defence denied there was any intimidation and it was claimed that the police had found the activists a joy to work with. The Defence also denied there was any damage and noted that in the EDO case there was thousands of pounds of damage caused and the defendants were acquitted, whereas at Ahava there was minimal, if any, damage caused.
The Defence attempted to implicate the Ahava staff in Ahava’s alleged illegal activities and imputed full knowledge to them due to the regular protests outside Ahava. A Defence barrister pointed to the public gallery to the activists who regularly protest outside Ahava as evidence that the employees would have had full knowledege of what Ahava was doing.
The Defence also claimed that the “economic pull” of the Ahava factory at Mitzpe Shalem amounted to a war crime under S49 of the Geneva Convention and that Ahava was in breach of the EU-Israel preferential trade agreement. The judge queried whether, even if Ahava was in breach of this agreement, that would make the actual products sold by Ahava illegal.
Judgement was reserved for a later date.
(Please be careful with any comments while the verdict is awaited)