I’m becoming sadly familiar with police and security presence which follows the Azhar Ahmed case around. There can be no doubt by now that CPS prosecution of this case, by bringing this matter into the public eye, has created a serious public order problem.
As usual, we were expecting the arrival of CXF and/or EDL at the Azhar Ahmed hearing on this Friday 14th September. A case which should long since have been abandoned. My hopes for today were that we would see the case finally dropped by the CPS.
There was an atmosphere of anticipation in the court lobby. Security strategy to be discussed, police to be briefed. This case is attracting a lot of negative attention, and sadly the Twitter Joke Trial supporters have thus far failed to be roused to take a serious interest in this case.
As expected, the nationalist contingent were in force in the public gallery at today’s hearing. There was an early incident after Azhar Ahmed’s Facebook post was read out in court for the first time, with some disruption and noise in the public gallery. This was followed by a stern warning from the Judge that any further disturbances would result in arrest for contempt of court.
The prosecution presented 6 witness statements today. All which are striking for what they imply about how the reaction to Ahmed’s Facebook posts was created and manifested. I’ll let the reader read between the lines.
Two statements were from other Facebook users who had seen Ahmed’s post. Azhar Ahmed made his post at around 19:00 on 8th March. Seemingly both witnesses came across Azhar Ahmed’s post as a result of somebody else sharing it on their timeline. They then went to look at Ahmed’s own homepage, and both testified that they saw an image elsewhere in his timeline which showed a dead family in Afghanistan surrounded by military uniformed legs, and also a past status which read “Islam will dominate the world”. They stated that they were “stunned”, “shocked”, “offended” by Ahmed’s post. Ashley Craig, one of those witnesses, had reported the matter to the police at approximately 21:20
A further statement came from one Samir Ahmed (no relation). Less than three hours after Azhar Ahmed’s Facebook post, an address and telephone number had been published on Facebook by persons unspecified, which purported to be Azhar Ahmed’s details. They were actually Samir Ahmed’s details, and in the following few hours, starting from around 22:00 hours, they received a deluge of abusive phone calls, mostly racial in content. These continued relentlessly for hours. At around midnight, cars started pulling up outside the house, and torches were shone in through windows. This went on until past 1:00am the following day. The witness testified that they have since had to change their telephone number.
We also heard the witness statement of Craig Oakland, a manager at Fox’s Biscuits in Batley. Azhar Ahmed had listed Fox’s Biscuits as his employer in his Facebook status, and from 9am onwards on the 9th of March, Fox’s started receiving complaint calls about Azhar Ahmed, and asking if Fox’s Biscuits was a “racist company”. Mr Oakland testified that this was “time consuming for management” and constituted a “serious brand issue” which may have caused retailers to “delist our products”.
Finally we heard the witness statements of the arresting officer and the police archivist. The arresting officer stated that Azhar Ahmed had arranged to meet with police outside Batley Frontier on 10th March. Ahmed and the arresting officer sat in the back of the police car and the following exchange took place:
Officer: Are you ok?
Ahmed: No, I’m nervous
A: Because of the thing I put on Facebook. You must have read it?
At this point, Azhar Ahmed was arrested.
Ahmed: What I did was stupid, but there was a reason for it.
In police interviews, Ahmed repeatedly expressed regret for any hurt or upset caused to families of soldiers. At one point he said that as he read back the post later, he thought that the first few sentences made sense, but the rest of it was “out of order” and “unacceptable”.
Azhar seemed to be of the belief that nobody apart from his Facebook friends could view his profile, but seemed unclear about Facebook privacy settings. During testimony in the witness box today, he told the prosecuting barrister that he had to look up Facebook privacy settings after his police interview.
It also transpired that the Azhar family computer had no Internet access, and that Ahmed’s Facebook post had been made from his mobile phone.
Ahmed stated in interview and in testimony in court today, that he had been moved to post after seeing references to the deaths of soldiers in his Facebook timeline. He stated that he saw no references to the innocent victims of war, and wished to draw this matter to the attention of his Facebook friends.
During his police interview, Ahmed was also asked if he thought the fact that he was an “Asian gentlemen” might cause others to take greater offence to his post, or that the fact he was a Muslim might cause others to hate Muslims for what he wrote.
I’ll leave you, dear reader, to roll those questions around in your mind for a bit.
Azhar Ahmed repeatedly reiterated in police interview and on the stand today that his post was “just my opinion”.
The matter in discussion today was not whether Azhar Ahmed had posted what he did (actus reus), but whether it was “Grossly Offensive” for the purposes of section 12 of the Communications Act 2003.
Regular readers will be familiar with these arguments. Some highlights from today: it transpired that once Ahmed realised that he had upset some people close to those killed in Afghanistan on the 6th, he deleted his post, and wrote personal messages of apology to Facebook users who had contacted him.
Azhar also stated repeatedly (despite badgering from the prosecution) during his testimony today, that his message could be “upsetting” or “distressing”, but that it was not “grossly offensive”
At the end of a 6 hour hearing, the District Judge Jane Goodwin gave her judgement. It was that, whilst acknowledging Azhar Ahmed’s right to express his political opinion, he must have been aware of the 6 soldiers killed in Afghanistan on the 6th which had prompted his message, and that his message was calculated to cause gross offence to the family, friends and colleagues of those soldiers. As such, she was satisfied that the mens rea of sending a grossly offensive message had been satisfied. Sentencing was set aside until 9th October.
Those are most of the salient facts. There’s lots more, but I need to get this post published and my head is still spinning. More soon. Be assured of that.