It is an uncomfortable feeling to go into court knowing that there is no possible hope of a positive outcome; knowing that you are there because a man has been convicted of a criminal offence for publicly expressing a view which others disagree with. The best outcome we could hope for today was a lenient sentence, but many would share my view that any conviction at all in the case of Azhar Ahmed was an unjustified interference with every British citizen’s right to freedom of expression.
Azhar Ahmed wrote a short Facebook status update post objecting to the war in Afghanistan, highlighting the deaths of innocent civillians and ending with a statement that “all soldiers should die and go to hell”. It was an angry outburst, objecting to the injustices of war and the horrors which inevitably follow it. His post was on the site for roughly twenty minutes before he removed it in response to complaints from other Facebook users, who said that they knew soldiers who had died in Afghanistan. He even sent messages of apology to some users who had complained directly to him.
In September Azhar Ahmed was convicted of sending a “grossly offensive” message via a public electronic communications network contrary to section 127 of the Communications Act 2003. Today in court he was sentenced to a 2 year community & supervision order, 50 hours high level activity and a further 240 hours community service and £300 costs, plus a number of other conditions. The judge’s sentencing remarks can be found here.
Throughout the trial it has been abundantly clear that the far right have been pushing for Azhar Ahmed’s imprisonment. After Azhar Ahmed removed his post from Facebook, screenshots of the post continued to be distributed around the internet, and a copy even found its way into the hands of the mother of a soldier recently killed in Afghanistan, who then reported the post to the police. Far right groups have attended every hearing in this case, filling the public gallery in the court. Today, there was much muttering from the back of court about Matthew Woods who was yesterday sentenced to 12 weeks imprisonment for posting off colour jokes about April Jones to Facebook.
As sentencing was read out, the public gallery erupted. There was great deal of shouting and a number of people walked noisily out of court. Some people shouted about the 12 week sentence handed to Matthew Woods yesterday. Clearly his sentence did not please the people in the gallery at all.
And yet, whilst politicians on both sides of the house appease the nationalists and the far right by saying they “understand their concerns”, whilst numerous far right blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts continue to operate protected by freedom of expression, this 20 year old British Asian man, who posted an angry political outburst for all of 20 minutes before deleting it, has been convicted of criminal offence for being “grossly offensive”.
This afternoon, I was interviewed on BBC Asian Network. One of my fellow interviewees, Amjad Malik QC, expressed the concern that Azhar Ahmed’s Facebook post had the potential to push people into Islamicism or far right extremism in response to his words. He felt that such posts should be criminalised in order to protect the wider Muslim community. To me, this is indicative of a besieged community. Should the Muslim community limit the speech of their own young people out of fear of aggravating the far right? This can’t be right, surely? Is it not the duty of the law to stand up to extremists of all stripes for the protection of the general public? Isn’t that the definition of “public interest”?
There’s something out of balance here.