Veteran human rights and environmental campaigners, Pete Bouquet, 59, and Jon Castle, 56, part of the People’s Navy, were arrested in the waters around Diego Garcia, the largest and southernmost island in the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), on board their boat , Musichana, on the morning of Saturday, March 8.
They were protesting about the forced exile of some 2000 people from the Chagos Archipelago between 1968 and 1971 to make way for the US military base. They were deported to Singapore on March 15 before returning to Britain. Here Pete Bouquet, the one-time skipper of Greenpeace ship the Rainbow Warrior, tells Sean Carey what happened.
Q. Was it always your plan to try and land on Diego Garcia?
A. It wasn’t in the original plan to get onto Diego – but we never ruled anything out either. The initial idea was to go there and “bear witness” to the mistreatment of the Chagossian people and to the murderous bombing of the Middle East which has taken place from the island. We didn’t have any firm plan of exactly how we would do that, to be honest. The deciding factor was the admission (which came co-incidentally towards the end of February as we approached the Chagos islands) by the British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, that two so-called “rendition” flights by the US had used the military base on Diego Garcia in 2002. At that point, we felt it was important to travel to the island and tell the British authorities that what they had been involved with was morally wrong – torture is something that can never be justified. We also wanted to let our elected representatives know that we were paying attention to their misdemeanours.
Q. Since 2000, the Chagos islanders have already won twice in the High Court and again last year in the Court of Appeal allowing them the right of return to their homeland. Despite this the British government has insisted on taking the case to the House of Lords later this year. Was the direct action employed by the People’s Navy born out of frustration at the amount of time taken up with the legal process which has effectively blocked the islanders’ right of return?
A. Yes, the People’s Navy was born out of frustration. But direct action isn’t a lot of use on its own – if there was no legal process or anything else going on it wouldn’t work. David McTaggart, a leading figure in the evolution of Greenpeace in Europe who had a huge influence on my thinking, used to say: “Direct action is for people who have got fed up writing to their MP”. Direct action often works because it contributes to shaping public opinion and helps to put pressure on politicians. Jon and I both know a lot about this kind of thing because we were both involved in the early days of Greenpeace and sailed on the original Rainbow Warrior. We both firmly believe that it is an individual’s responsibility to speak out against wrong-doing and to take action in the Quaker tradition of “bearing witness”. A lot of individuals within Greenpeace and elsewhere have helped us – in fact, that’s how the People’s Navy came into being. Jon and I both know how to sail boats and so we figured we would go to Chagos and see what would happen.
Q. Who arrested you in the waters of Diego Garcia?
A. We never tried to hide what we were doing and so we were arrested by the British authorities less than three miles off the coast of Diego Garcia as we approached the main entrance into the lagoon – it was about 11 o’clock in the morning. The port operations people told us to turn around and exit the area while all the time an American Navy supply ship was keeping an eye on us. We told the authorities that we intended to enter the lagoon as part of a peaceful protest. So they sent out an RHIB (rigid hull inflatable boat) with a BIOT customs officer and a policeman together with an armed Royal Marines escort. We were told we were being arrested by the policeman for being inside the waters of Diego Garcia without permission. We were then put in the cells at the main police station in “Downtown” (that’s the name of the bus stop) Diego Garcia. But they treated us really well – everything was very correct and by the book and no one showed us any animosity. They even notified my sister that I had been arrested.
Q. What were you charged with?
A. We went to the Magistrates Court on the following Thursday at 1630 Diego time. Only Jon, as the Captain of the Musichana, was charged. Everyone wore their Sunday best – the magistrate was the base commander and the prosecutor, an army major, was, I would guess, his second-in-command. The prosecutor said his bit – it was all the usual stuff: “Flagrant disregard of the law …calculated…premeditated lawbreaking …without integrity … contempt…cost to the UK taxpayer…etc” – you can fill in the blanks yourself. But the result was that Jon was duly found guilty of “violation of the BIOT Visitors and Visiting Vessels Ordinance 2006” and that that as “master of the vessel named Musichana, which did on the 8th day of March 2008, enter the territorial sea of Diego Garcia” was given a fine of £3000 and ordered to pay costs of £200, to be paid within 7 days. He was also sentenced to 6 months in jail, suspended for one year.
Q. Why did you and Jon decide not to pay the fine and forfeit Musichana? Was it a hard decision to make?
A. We did not want to pay the fine because we felt that to do so would just be like “rolling over”. By pleading “not guilty”, Jon had the opportunity to address the court and make his point. It was not really a hard decision although, of course, it’s disappointing to lose Musichana. But we intend to pursue this.
Q. Did you get the chance to look around Diego Garcia?
A. We were kept under very close supervision and, therefore, could only see a fairly limited amount. But the base and the rest of the military facilities are located on the far north-west corner of the atoll – north of the airfield which has a runway about 3 miles in length. We didn’t see any bombers but the lagoon had half a dozen or so anchored military supply vessels. Our general impression was that Diego Garcia wasn’t a very busy place. But there’s a veritable army of Filipino civilian workers and it’s all very tidy. And there are loads of facilities – there is a swimming pool and places where you can go paintballing and play tennis, basketball and baseball as well as take-away pizza and burger places. There is also an open-air cinema and various clubs and bars. It’s all a bit like Disneyland, really. There are not that many British personnel in evidence – maybe 50 or so at a guess.
Q. You also visited some of the outer islands of the Archipelago like Peros Banhos and Salomon which coincided with a recent visit by some Chagossian stonemasons who had been allowed in by the British authorities to make repairs to their ancestors’ graveyards. Did you meet any of them?
A. Yes, we met up with them on both the islands. Jon helped the Chagossians with some of the work on Salomon – I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t join in because I was feeling a bit lazy at the time. They were clearing the graveyard and repairing the stonework on the more badly damaged graves. The Chagossians also built and erected a cross on Peros Banhos. Their Creole and our English were a bit incompatible so we couldn’t communicate all that much but they seemed really pleased to be getting on with things.
Q. Some of the Chagossian exiles in Mauritius and the Seychelles would like to return to these outer islands. How feasible do you think this is?
A. The original settlements on both these islands have been totally neglected and ruined. Peros Banhos in particular is totally overgrown. But it’s certainly feasible for the islanders to return — it just needs some money although the British government seems very reluctant to come up with the necessary funds to allow resettlement. The contrast between the state and condition of the outer islands like Peros Banhos and Salomon and Diego Garcia was striking. There’s never much a problem finding money for military spending, is there?
Q. You originally intended to present a report to the Chagossians in Mauritius – you didn’t get to sail to Port Louis so is there a sense that there is still unfinished business on your side?
As far as Jon and I are concerned there will always be unfinished business until the Chagossians are allowed to return to their homeland and the military leave the islands for good. If we feel that there is anything we can do in a practical way then we’ll go back. The People’s Navy is also working on plans for more boats to go to the islands. Let’s just see how things develop.
Dr Sean Carey is Research Fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM), Surrey University