5 May 1999

Date: Wed, 05 May 1999 13:22:29 +0100
From: Ian Brown <I.Brown@cs.ucl.ac.uk>
To: ukcrypto@maillist.ox.ac.uk
Subject: Menwith Hill's prisoner of conscience

The Independent, 5 May 1999.

Lindis Percy is 57, a vicar's wife and a Quaker. Meet Suffolk's most
unlikely prisoner of conscience. By Ann Treneman 

I set off to RAF Menwith Hill on a mission without realising that the place
was not on the map. Sitting by the side of the road somewhere between Leeds
and Bradford, I saw that this was entirely predictable. After all, Menwith

Hill is one of the world's largest listening-stations. It is top secret and
supposedly run by the Americans. It is hardly going to appear, flagged by a
little spying icon, in the AA Big Road Atlas of Britain. But, having driven
250 miles, I was not going to turn round. I asked directions. 

"Take the B6451," said a woman. "It's near Blubberhouses." 

This part of Yorkshire is shockingly beautiful and perhaps that is why
Menwith Hill seems so ugly. You drive over the crest of the hill and
suddenly the horizon fills up with what appear to be giant tumours. In fact
they are 27 giant, golf-ball style "radomes" crowded together in what
amounts to a very large field. This is a landscape freakish enough to have
been photographed by Diane Arbus. Sheep graze nearby and there is a stone
wall that acts as a bit of the perimeter fence. 

As I drove round, a police car moved in behind me. Suddenly the
walkie-talkies were buzzing. I pulled over into a lay-by to have a good
look at the American flag flying in the Yorkshire breeze at the base's
entrance. A military policeman walked over and started to radio in my car
number plate. It seemed a rather roundabout way to get my name. 

I headed out to find a by-law sign. These are troublesome things at
Menwith. It may sound strange, but there is a woman who has been imprisoned
for nine months because of them. Her name is Lindis Percy. She is a
57-year-old health visitor from Hull. On the face of it she hardly seems
the type to end up in jail. She is even married to a vicar. But Lindis is a
Quaker, and a big believer in peace. 

She wants to know what is being done at Menwith Hill in our names. She
believes that it is a corner of an English field that will be forever
American. She wants to know if Britain has any control over this place. She
is part of the Campaign for Accountability for American Bases which has
caused questions to be asked in Parliament. 

Lindis and the MoD are old acquaintances. Years ago, the MoD issued an
injunction against her visiting the base. 

In 1997, the by-laws that are posted around Menwith were ruled illegal in
Yorkshire Crown Court. The MoD appealed but, in the meantime, left the
signs up. Lindis asked for them to be removed. The MoD refused. Lindis then
decided to put "invalid" stickers on them. The MoD took Lindis to court for
civil trespass and for breaking the injunction. In March, a High Court
judge sentenced her to nine months. So that is roughly how Lindis Percy
became Prisoner CF9734 at HMP Highpoint in Suffolk. 

Rae McGrath spent 18 years in the military, so he knows how it thinks. But
he also knows how Lindis thinks, because he became a campaigner against
landmines. For his work in this field, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in
1997. Mr McGrath believes that Lindis has been jailed for being a nuisance

rather than a trespasser, and says she is a political prisoner. He has
asked Amnesty International to declare her a prisoner of conscience. If
Amnesty did, it would be a first; all previous PoCs in the UK have been to
do with Northern Ireland. 

"Lindis is being focused on because she is effective and committed," he
says. "I mean, Quakers are a damn nuisance if they are on the other side. I
would not like to get on the wrong side of a bunch of Quakers. 

"She is also innovative," he says. "She's found ways of being irritating,
not for the sake of it but as a way of drawing attention to the presence of
Menwith Hill. It's her effectiveness that has worked. Lindis does keep
turning up in their backyard, but just whose damn backyard is this?" 

Menwith Hill does not seem friendly enough to be anyone's backyard. I found
by-law signs at several entrances and, standing next to them, men with
sub-machine-guns. I felt immediately guilty as I walked up to read one of
them, and had to remind myself that the signs exist only for this very

I went to Highpoint to interview Lindis. A few days later I was told that
the Prison Service was telling other journalists that I had obtained my
interview through subterfuge. Indeed, they said, I had "smuggled in" my
notebook. It all sounded extremely exciting. Sadly, the truth was not. I
had identified myself as being from The Independent on the prison visiting
order. And I had telephoned the prison to receive permission for my

The interview itself took 90 minutes. When you think about political
prisoners, you tend to think about somewhere far away, say, China or Burma.
You do not think Suffolk. 

Lindis was having a hard time and had spent 12 nights in segregation in a
cell 8ft by 11ft. There was no toilet and she had to use a chamber pot at
night. She was locked up for 23 hours a day. She thinks the conditions are
appalling and - in a typically Lindis move - has requested to see the
Health and Safety Executive report on Highpoint. 

One night in segregation was linked directly to her refusal to be
strip-searched. (The Prison Service says it has the right to do this but
Lindis disagrees.) The rest were imposed because Lindis was deemed to be a
security risk after she had written something to her husband. What did she

She looks embarrassed. "It was a joke," she says. 

So what was it? 

"Well, you have to see it in context," she says. 


"Well, I said something like: 'I wish I had my rope ladder.' But it was a
joke. It was a joke!" 

It is the only time her voice is raised during the interview. By the time
the prison authorities agreed that there was no security risk here, Lindis
had been in segregation for almost two weeks. The prison service confirmed
all the information Lindis had given me, though even the press officer
didn't believe that they were still slopping out there until he checked. 

Lindis believes in human rights the way some other people believe in
football. She says that what she objects to is abuse of power.
Accountability - be it from a prison officer or the Ministry of Defence -
is what matters. This sounds innocuous enough. It is the kind of thing that

politicians are always saying. But, really, this is what got her into
prison in the first place. 

Rae McGrath believes that she should not be there. "One of the reasons that
countries - and they aren't all dictatorships - get away with political
prisoners is that it takes a while to realise what a political prisoner is.
It starts off with people like Lindis being locked up for being a nuisance.
Law is dangerous because it works on precedent. Once several people have
been locked up like this, it becomes the norm."