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Legal affairs correspondent Reevel Alderson
"Protesters were hoping for a signal ruling that Trident was illegal"
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Friday, 30 March, 2001, 14:45 GMT 15:45 UK
Judges rule Trident not illegal
Trident posters
Some protesters held a vigil outside the court
Three Scottish High Court judges have ruled Britain's Trident nuclear weapons are not illegal under international law.

The judges were asked to consider a challenge to a sheriff's decision in October 1999 that three women who damaged a Trident nuclear installation were not acting illegally.

At the High Court in Edinburgh the ruling of Lords Prosser, Kirkwood and Penrose, was given to a courtroom packed with anti-nuclear protesters, some of whom took part in a vigil outside the court before hearing.

Angela Zelter
Angela Zelter: Expressed disappointment
The three women had argued that the International Court of Justice in the Hague had expressed the view that nuclear weapons were illegal.

Sheriff Margaret Gimblett acquitted the peace campaigners of charges of maliciously damaging a laboratory at Coulport, part of the submarine complex on the Clyde.

The sheriff accepted the women's argument that nuclear weapons were illegal under international law.

The protesters have consistently argued that since Trident was incapable of discriminating between civilian and military targets it was unacceptable.

Sheriff Gimblett's decision was challenged by Scotland's senior law officer, the Lord Advocate Colin Boyd QC.

At a hearing last October, Advocate Depute, Simon Di Rollo, asked for the ruling to be overturned.

The Crown took the rare legal step to prevent peace campaigners using the same defence again should any be charged and appear in court.

'Question of competency'

At that Reference hearing, Mr Di Rollo said a person or group of people's mistaken belief that they were entitled to cause damage was not a legally viable defence.

On Friday, Lord Prosser said: "The Reference contains four questions for the court. The first raises a question of competency in law and we find in the negative.

"Each of the other three questions raises an issue of substantive law.

Clyde base sign
The women targeted a Trident installation
"All of these issues concern different aspects of possible defences to criminal charges on the basis that the act charged might be justified either as a matter of customary international law or as a matter of Scots law necessity.

"We answered each of these three questions in the negative."

Angela Zelter, one of the women arrested at Coulport - part of the Faslane Naval Base complex - and later cleared by Sheriff Gimblett, said she was very disappointed.

She said: "Lord Prosser didn't look us in the eye. The atmosphere in the court was completely different to the atmosphere throughout the Reference proceedings.

"The fact that he answered so briefly without looking at us in the eye at all.

"I think as a human being he probably feels that he has failed and the Scottish judiciary has failed."

Protesters' defence

Ms Zelter said the campaign against nuclear weapons would continue despite the ruling.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said the legality of Trident was never "in the dock".

He said: "We've always said that the International Court of Justice ruling in no way deems that nuclear weapons are illegal, so we were surprised when the protesters' defence was upheld by the sheriff.

"The legality of Trident was never in the dock, it was more a question of interpretation of law and whether the defence offered up by the protesters was a legitimate one.

"The essence of their ruling is that to use the International Court of Justice as a defence is not legitimate."

The Scottish Executive's justice department said it could not comment on individual cases.

On Thursday, an English High Court judge also ruled against Trident protesters who had alleged the missile system was illegal.

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See also:

13 Feb 01 | Scotland
New Trident submarine in service
09 Oct 00 | Scotland
Trident 'legal' says Crown
04 Oct 00 | Scotland
Protesters target Trident ruling
17 Jan 00 | Scotland
Judges to examine Trident case
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