Fifteen protesters who prevented the take-off of a deportation flight from Stansted Airport have been spared immediate prison sentences for an aviation offence.

The so-called Stansted 15 cut through the airport’s perimeter fence and locked themselves together around a Boeing 767 jet chartered by the Home Office to transport people from UK detention centres for repatriation to Africa.

Each defendant denied the single charge against them but all were found guilty following an earlier two-month trial at Chelmsford Crown Court, with prosecutor Tony Badenoch QC telling jurors the activists put the “safety of the airport in a likelihood of danger”.

The offence all defendants were convicted of is the intentional disruption of services at an aerodrome, contrary to section 1 (2) (b) of the Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990.

Stansted 15One of the ‘Stansted 15’ is photographed outside Chelmsford Crown Court (John Stillwell/PA)

Lawyers for the activists said this law was passed in response to the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

Judge Christopher Morgan, sentencing at the same court on Wednesday, told the defendants: “In normal circumstances only a normal custodial sentence would have been justified in this case, but in your case I accept that your intentions were to demonstrate.”

He stressed they were still convicted of a “serious offence” and while their intentions reduced their culpability the “harm in this case is great”.

“You took objects onto that airport,” said Judge Morgan. “You had no way of knowing if all had been recovered.”

He said that “even a small breach of regulations, the leaving of foreign object debris on a runway can have catastrophic effects”.

Anti-deportation protestTwo of the ‘Stansted 15’ pose for a picture (John Stillwell/PA)

By way of example, he said that in 2000 a small piece of metal that fell from one plane “caused the destruction of a Concorde” at a Paris airport.

He added that the activists moved a tripod near to the wing of a Boeing 767, where its fuel tank is located.

“That plane had been fuelled and the consequences of metal striking and going through that wing could have resulted in a catastrophic fire,” he said.

Three defendants were given suspended jail terms, and the other 12 were given community orders.

Hundreds of people turned out to a demonstration ahead of the court hearing, with a police road closure in place as crowds sang, clapped and held banners.

The courtroom was packed for the hearing, with extra space created in the public gallery and all seats filled.

The defendants’ actions in March 2017 caused the runway to close for one hour and 20 minutes and for 19 inbound flights to Stansted to be diverted to other airports.

Judge Morgan said the incident resulted in a loss of more than £1 million to parties who were not specified in court.

Stansted 15Supporters gathered outside Chelmsford Crown Court (John Stillwell/PA)

Dexter Dias QC, mitigating, said the defendants feared for the safety of some of those on the deportation flight, adding: “These defendants acted out of conscience.”

Two people who were set to be deported have since had their cases reconsidered by the Home Office and have been allowed to stay, Mr Dias said.

The defendants, aged between 27 and 44, are appealing against their conviction.

They are: Helen Brewer, 29; Lyndsay Burtonshaw, 28; Nathan Clack, 30; Laura Clayson, 28; Melanie Evans, 35; Joseph McGahan, 35; Benjamin Smoke, 27; Jyotsna Ram, 33; Nicholas Sigsworth, 29; Melanie Strickland, 35; Alistair Tamlit, 30; Edward Thacker, 29; Emma Hughes, 38; May McKeith, 33 and 44-year-old Ruth Potts.

Thacker, Strickland and Tamlit, who were previously convicted in 2016 of aggravated trespass over a climate change protest at Heathrow Airport in 2015, were given sentences of nine months in prison suspended for 18 months.

Thacker and Tamlit were ordered to complete 250 hours of unpaid work, and Strickland 100 hours of unpaid work.

Anti-deportation protestMay McKeith (centre left), one of the ‘Stansted 15’,  talks to media following the court case (John Stillwell/PA)

The 12 other defendants were given 12-month community orders and told to complete 100 hours of unpaid work, save for McKeith who was spared unpaid work and instead told to complete 20 days of rehabilitation due to ill health.

All defendants must comply with a 12-month exclusion requirement to stay away from Stansted Airport save for travel purposes.

Twelve of the defendants’ given addresses are in north London, Burtonshaw’s is in Brighton, Potts’s is in Bristol and McGahan’s is in Reading.

In a statement read outside court, the Stansted 15 described their conviction as an “injustice that has profound implications for our lives”.

They said: “When a country uses draconian terror legislation against people for peaceful protest, snatches others from their homes in dawn raids, incarcerates them without time limit and forces them onto planes in the middle of the night, due to take them to places where their lives might be at risk, something is very seriously wrong.”

Afterwards a gathered crowd began to chant “no borders, no nations, stop deportations”.

Raj Chada, Partner from Hodge Jones & Allen, who represented all 15 of the defendants, said after the hearing: “While we are relieved that none of our clients face a custodial sentence, today is still a sad day for justice.

“Our clients prevented individuals being illegally removed from the UK and should never have been charged under counter terrorism legislation.

“We maintain that this was an abuse of power by the Attorney General and the CPS and will continue to fight in the appeal courts to get these wrongful convictions overturned.”