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Thursday, October 21, 1999 Published at 22:57 GMT 23:57 UK

UK: Scotland

Sheriff dubs nuclear programme illegal

The protesters filmed their actions at the research unit

A sheriff has allowed three anti-nuclear activists to walk free on charges of damaging a Trident nuclear submarine after she said the weapons were illegal under international law.

BBC Scotland's Leslie Anderson: "The women took part in a raid on the Trident research base"
The CND campaigners were accused of attacking a barge and laboratory equipment at the Faslane Naval Base near Lochgoilhead, Argyll.

But a jury at Greenock Sheriff Court was ordered to acquit the women after Sheriff Margaret Gimblett ruled they had a right to "disarm" the base.

[ image: Ellen Moxley: Appeared in court]
Ellen Moxley: Appeared in court
The three women, Angela Zelter, 48, Ellen Moxley, 45, and Bodil Ulla Roder, 45, faced three charges of maliciously damaging equipment at the base.

There were cheers and applause as the women walked free from the court after the trial which, lasted four and a half weeks.

They had been held on remand at Cornton Vale Women's Prison since their arrest at the Clydeside base on 8 June.

The women were arrested after boarding a barge which was part of the Trident installation.

They had been charged with maliciously damaging the vessel called Maytime, stealing two inflatable life rafts and damaging equipment in an on-board laboratory.

The equipment was thrown overboard into Loch Goil before they were arrested by Ministry of Defence police.

But Sheriff Gimblett said she accepted the argument put forward by defence advocate John Mayer, who said Trident was illegal under international law and the women were acting simply to prevent a crime.

Court of justice

Mr Mayer said a ruling by the International Court of Justice in 1996 made Trident and all nuclear weapons illegal.

This meant the women had basically committed a crime but were acting to prevent other crimes taking place and so in Scots law should be acquitted, he told the court.

Addressing the activists after the jury had delivered a formal verdict, the sheriff told them they should not regard this as meaning they would be able to carry out such actions recklessly.

"Yesterday I made it clear that the courts do not allow crimes to be committed to prevent other crimes except in very special circumstances," she said.

"There were such circumstances in this particular case and the same circumstances may not apply to anyone who carries out actions similar to those carried out at Maytime in June.

"You do so at your peril - be very careful."

'Not unexpected'

Protester Ellen Moxley said the sheriff's actions were "not unexpected".

She told BBC Radio Scotland: "We've been working very, very hard to get international laws accepted in Scotland.

Protester Ellen Moxley said the ruling "was not all that unexpected"
"This was part of the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice and for the first time it has been recognised as applying to Trident in Scotland."

Ms Moxley said the protesters' action was justified because the equipment targeted "was illegal" under international law.

However, she said it would now be up to campaigners to decide whether or not to escalate their "non violent action" in the light of the sheriff's ruling but stressed that it had not been viewed as opening the floodgates on further activity.

[ image: Phil Gallie: Angered by ruling]
Phil Gallie: Angered by ruling
But Conservative MSP Phil Gallie attacked the sheriff's decision.

He said: "I'm very angry. I find it incredible that individuals can take it upon themselves to go on to private property, do damage at the expense of the taxpayer - I just can't understand the sheriff's ruling."

The Crown is understood to be considering an appeal against the ruling and Dr Iain Scobbie, an expert on international law at Glasgow University, said it was likely the ruling would be overturned if an appeal went ahead.

He said: "The ruling does set a precedent but it is a very low level precedent and I would imagine it would be re-examined by the Crown Office for possible appeal on a point of law."

Dr Scobbie said the defence's argument revolved around an "opinion" expressed by the International Court of Justice.

"The court was simply giving legal advice to the general assembly of the United Nations. It's not binding the General Assembly and states can choose not to accept the court's advice."

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