A group of activists who broke into an arms factory near Brighton last year and caused damage costing around £180,000 ($275,000) were found not guilty last week of causing criminal damage.

In a lawsuit filed in October, seven British activists claimed they were legally justified to break in and sabotage the factory of EDO MBM Technology near Brighton, on the south coast of England, in January 2009, at the time of Operation Cast Lead.

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Believing that the company was violating export license regulations and sending arms components to Israel, the activists, from a group called Smash EDO, said they wanted to “slow down” the manufacture of components that were allegedly being sold to the Jewish state.

The protesters threw computers and file cabinets out of the factory windows and smashed machinery using hammers, claiming they were seeking to prevent “Israeli war crimes in Gaza.”

The seven admitted breaking in and causing the damage but were acquitted when the jury found them not guilty of conspiring to cause criminal damage, despite video-taped interviews of the activists that outlined their intention to cause criminal damage and “smash up” the factory.

The activists used the “lawful excuse” defense – committing an offense to prevent what they say was a more serious crime because EDO was “complicit in war crimes.”

Judge George Bathurst-Norman told the jury: “You may well think that hell on earth would not be an understatement of what the Gazans suffered in that time.”

EDO managing director Paul Hills denied in court that the company supplied components to Israel but said it did make parts for F-16 fighter planes.

Judge George Bathurst-Norman said that, despite Hill’s denials, it was clear that there was enough evidence to the contrary and that the certificates required for arms export licenses were “not worth the paper they are written on,” as they can be easily manipulated.

According to The Guardian, the judge highlighted the testimony by Green Party MP and anti-Israel activist Caroline Lucas, who had tried to justify the action by saying, “All democratic paths had been exhausted and, crucially, that their actions were driven by the responsibility to prevent further suffering in Gaza.”

Israeli Ambassador Ron Prosor said this was not a great time for the United Kingdom’s justice system.

“After reading the judge’s statement, there is no doubt that this is not a great era of the British justice system. I assume that Sderot’s children, who have lived under thousands of missiles, for years, will be able to enlighten the judge as to the meaning of “hell on earth.

“I am convinced that the judge would have ruled differently had he been sitting in the Sderot youth cultural center, rather than on Brighton’s sunny shores,” the ambassador said.

“What we have here is yet another example of how the hysterical campaign against the State of Israel is not merely resulting in gross injustice against the Middle East’s only Western-style democracy, it is undermining Western-style democracy at home,” said Robin Shepherd, from the London- based Henry Jackson Society think tank and author of A State Beyond the Pale: Europe’s Problem with Israel.

“Bigotry does not merely cause pain and suffering to its victims, it degrades its perpetrators from within. The rule of law itself is now under threat in Britain, and judges and juries are applauding as it goes,” Shepherd said.

After the verdict, one of the activists, Robert Nicholls, 52, told The Guardian: “I’m joyful really, at being a free man... We just wanted to do something that would make a real difference to the people of Palestine.”

“I’ve felt very peaceful all the way through the trial because I’m proud of what I’ve done. It was the right thing to do,” said another activist, Ornella Saibene, 50.

“We’re very happy that a jury of ordinary people confronted with the facts recognized that our actions were justified,” Saibene told the Bristol Evening Post. “Presented with the facts of what was going on in Palestine, they have backed our action. It’s a victory for justice and for both British and Palestinian people.”

On Friday, two more of the activists were acquitted, Elijah Smith, 42, and Chris Osmond, 30.

Osmond, an activist from a group called Boycott Israeli Goods, said the destruction came because of EDO’s “illegal supply of weapons” to Israel.

Before the attack, Smith said on the group’s Web site, “I don’t feel I’m going to do anything illegal tonight, but I’m going to go into an arms factory and smash it up to the best of my ability so that it cannot actually produce munitions and these very dirty bombs that have been provided to the Israeli army so that they can kill children.

The time for talking has gone too far. I’m not a writer, I’m just a person from the community and I’m deeply disgusted.”

Smash EDO campaign spokeswoman Chloe Marsh accused Israel of committing genocide and called for EDO directors to be tried for war crimes.

“The citizens of Britain are no longer prepared to stand idly by whilst Israel commits genocide with the backing of our own government. Brighton is a peace messenger city. EDO is an obscenity that must be removed from Brighton and the directors of this foul company ought to be tried for war crimes by the International Criminal Court,” Marsh said.

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