Gaza Protesters Defence Campaign launched

March 12, 2010 — Comment

Written by Harmit Athwal

A defence campaign is being mounted against the lengthy sentences handed to young Muslims who protested a year ago about Israel’s brutal invasion of Gaza.

Twenty-two young people are in prison, convicted of public order offences, as a result of taking part in demonstrations in London in December 2008 and January 2009 following the Israeli invasion of Gaza.

Over the last few months, cases have been heard at Isleworth Crown Court in west London of young people, mostly male and Muslim, who have been charged with violent disorder and other public order offences. Even those who pleaded guilty early in court proceedings have, on the whole, received hefty sentences. These have been criticised by campaigners and organisations concerned at the number of young people being targeted and the unduly harsh punishment meted out to many who were attending their first demonstration.

For many in the Muslim community it will be clear that different rules apply to Muslims in our criminal justice system just as Muslims are demonised as extremists, terrorists and an alien threat in the media, they are now treated as group apart on our streets and in our courts.

Background

As Israel invaded Gaza and the Strip was shelled between 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009, demonstrations were mounted across the world. One of the largest was held in London on 10 January 2009, in which hundreds of thousands of people took part. The demonstration marched from Hyde Park to the Israeli embassy. Scuffles broke out outside the embassy as protesters stopped to throw shoes and the window of a Starbucks was smashed. Many protesters were injured (as were fifty-five police officers). Injuries reported by protesters included a broken leg, bruising, hair being pulled and cuts. People attending the demonstration were randomly stopped and searched and CS spray was reportedly used on the crowd. The police also ‘kettled’ protesters near Hyde Park and all those within police lines were forced to have their pictures taken and had to provide personal details before they were allowed to leave.[1] For further details about how the protests were policed read a report by the Islamic Human Rights Commission on the protests.[2]

Complaints were made about the policing of the demonstration to the Met Police Service (MPS) and the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). However, the IPCC did not independently investigate any of the complaints and those referred back to the MPS to investigate were subsequently dismissed. Many complaints were dismissed as police officers could not be identified because their ID numbers were not visible.[3]

Arrests

As a result of the trouble at the demonstrations, the Met police launched a high profile operation – Operation Ute – aimed at locating and charging the protesters. At least 119 people have been arrested in connection with the demonstrations, mainly young Muslim men (including Algerians, Palestinians and Pakistanis) and seventy-eight have been charged with offences. Many of the arrests took place months after the demonstrations in dawn raids, some of which have allegedly involved police brutality. Furthermore, many of those arrested were very young people, the youngest being a 12-year-old boy, and many more are under 19, being students in full-time education and with no previous criminal records.

At court almost all of the defendants were required to surrender their passports and, despite the fact that the vast majority of those charged are British citizens, all were served with immigration notices which stated that they could be deported depending on the outcome of criminal proceedings.

Convictions

In the last few weeks, numerous young people have been sent to prison for lengthy terms, often against recommendations in pre-sentence reports from the probation service. A number of cases have been heard at youth courts because of the age of the young people involved. Judge Denniss, who has presided over the cases commented: ‘such offences often involve young men such as you who are otherwise of exemplary character. But the sentences given must act as a deterrent for those who may commit such offences in the future.’

The charges of violent disorder are for offences ranging from throwing placard sticks and pushing or kicking police. See below for a more detailed breakdown of convictions:

  • November 2009: A young man, who pleaded guilty to charges of criminal damage after red food dye was found in his bag, was given a 12-month conditional discharge and ordered to pay £100 costs. (Socialist Worker 7.11.09)
  • January 2010: Three people received sentences for violent disorder, ranging from 15 to 20 months.
  • February 2010: The case against KA was thrown out after Freedom of Information Act releases revealed that an injury he was alleged to have caused to a police officer (perforating his eardrum after throwing a sand bag), did not happen. (Socialist Worker)
  • February 2010: MA (20), was sentenced to two years for violent disorder, despite a pre-sentence report which suggested that he should receive a community order. It was his first ever demonstration. (Socialist Worker 20.1.10)
  • 12 February 2010: Seven people, aged between 17 and 25, were convicted of violent disorder and sentenced to between 15 and 30 months.
  • 19 February 2010: Nine people received custodial sentences for violent disorder (acts such as throwing placards at fully armoured riot police). One defendant received a suspended sentence, due to a long history of mental illness. Sentencing started at 2 years for all adult guilty pleas and defendants under 18 at the time of the offence received between 8 and 12 months’ Detention and Training Orders, a sentence of imprisonment and community supervision.
  • 26 February 2010: A 15-year-old boy at the time of the alleged offence received an Intensive Surveillance and Supervision Programme sentence, the most rigorous non-custodial intervention for young offenders, which will include an electronic tag and a curfew for violent disorder. Five people pleaded guilty and were jailed for 12 months to 2 years for violent disorder. Another person received a 12-months’ suspended sentence and 200 hours community service.
Solidarity action

People are protesting at what appears to be a grossly unfair vendetta against young people who exercise a legitimate right to protest on the street. Young Muslim men have not been targeted and punished in connection with public order offences on this scale since the charges and convictions linked to the Bradford riots of 2001. Comparisons are also being drawn with the political targeting that followed the Poll Tax riots.

Campaigners, activists and lawyers are questioning the length of sentences and the nature of the police operations. A number of people are bringing civil actions against the police. And a number of those convicted will be appealing against their sentences. A formal defence campaign, involving the families, lawyers and campaigners and supported by the Stop the War Coalition, Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the British Muslim Initiative, has been launched and can be contacted at the email address below.

Related links

Gaza Protesters Defence Campaign

Download a copy of the petition

Guardian (25.2.10) – Seumas Milne: ‘This tide of anti-Muslim hatred is a threat to us all’

Read an IRR News story: ‘IRR expresses concern over excessive sentencing of Bradford rioters’

Gaza Demonstrators Support Campaign

Many thanks to Joanna Gilmore, researcher in the School of Law at the University of Manchester, for assistance with this article. Please also contact Joanna Gilmore for information about the Gaza Protesters Defence Campaign: joanna.gilmore@manchester.ac.uk. [1] It should be noted that an inquiry was conducted by Denis O'Connor (Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary) into tactics used during the G20 demonstrations which took place in April 2009. Then, protesters were similarly kettled for hours and Ian Tomlinson died after an altercation with police. [2] Policing, protest and conflict: A Report into the Policing of the London Gaza Demonstrations in 2008-2009, Adam Majeed, Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), 2010. [3] Guardian (21.4.09).

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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