13th August 2001
Guernsey protestor in court for delaying missile test
Three Britons were among fifteen Greenpeace activists who found themselves in court after protesting a US missile test. John Wills, from Guernsey, was one of them.
The group, which had been at Vandenberg air force base in California, had delayed the test by two minutes. That doesn’t sound long, but it was the principle of the disruption that mattered.
Wills, who was 27 at the time of his arrest, had graduated in marine geography from the University of Wales and sailed on the Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior. He told The Guardian that he wanted to live in a world free of nuclear weapons. The Vandenberg tests would therefore have been of particular interest, as they were part of the United States’ Son of Star Wars programme to develop a missile shield.
In the case of this particular test, scientists launched a disarmed $100m Minuteman 2 missile from Vandenberg and, 21 minutes later, an interceptor rocket from the Marshall Islands. Ten minutes after its launch, the interceptor destroyed the Minuteman, 144 miles above Earth.
The protestors, plus two photographers, had used dinghies to access the test site. Once there, some of them swam to shore. As a result, they were facing felony charges, rather than the usual, less serious, misdemeanour charges.
Greenpeace, which itself was surprised at the severity of the sentences the protestors were facing, organised protests outside US embassies in London, Stockholm, Berlin, Prague, Bratislava, Helsinki and Moscow.
In January the following year, the nine non-US members of the protest group pleaded guilty to misdemeanor conspiracy to enter a military base and were sentenced to probation. As a result, they were not required to serve any additional jail time beyond what they had already spent in custody between their arrest and being allowed out on bail.
Had they been unable to strike a deal with prosecutors, the protestors would have faced six years in prison.