Azhar Ahmed – Sentencing

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.

Please sign our open letter on the Azhar Ahmed conviction here

7 thoughts on “Azhar Ahmed – Sentencing

  1. Very interesting situation. There is a dichotomy between the far right (who are treated more leniently) and far left. Nobody can compare Azhar Ahmed with Woods who held no political beliefs and was a mere RIP troll.

  2. This case has been very troubling right from the start. Whilst his comments about all soldiers going to hell are on the face of it offensive, they have to be considered in the context of his remarks about the innocent casualties of war. We also, and I think this is a big point that the CPS are repeatedly missing, have to accept that others might occasionally offend us.

    The problem with 127 1a is that the courts and the CPS seem to be having problems interpreting the term “grossly offensive”, as opposed to “offensive”. There’s a measure of subjective judgement to be had there, and it really shouldn’t be that vague.

    I think the conviction is unwarranted, and I feel the sentence too harsh.

  3. The sentencing remarks are disgraceful, and included a high degree of victim blaming. Subsequent crimes *against* Mr Ahmed, as reprisal for his opinion, have been imputed onto him, so as to aggravate the sentence. He’s also been held responsible for harassment of his former employer by the same mob. In addition to the community service, he’s been told he must attend “a specific programme that can address your thinking and behaviour”. Given that his “thinking” here was not to rob somebody, but to hold a political opinion, this is a flagrant breach of the Article 10 right to hold that opinion and to exercise freedom of conscience.

    • Couldn’t agree more. I was appalled that the actions of a far right lynch mob were considered as a “consequence” of his actions to be considered during sentencing. To me, this demonstrates the extent to which this entire case has been manipulated and perpetuated by the far right agenda.

    • Precisely – this is an unconscionable line of thought and a complete negation of moral responsibility. Those who hold this view would have Sam Bacile charged as an accessory to Chris Stevens’ murder; Theo Van Gogh’s death, it must follow, was simply ‘suicide by offensive words’. The following quote, even if it is from Hari, is particularly clear on the stupidity of this idea:

      ‘The argument that I was “asking for it” seems a little like saying a woman wearing a short skirt is “asking” to be raped. Or, as Salman Rushdie wrote when he received far, far worse threats simply for writing a novel (and a masterpiece at that): “When Osip Mandelstam wrote his poem against Stalin, did he ‘know what he was doing’ and so deserve his death? When the students filled Tiananmen Square to ask for freedom, were they not also, and knowingly, asking for the murderous repression that resulted? When Terry Waite was taken hostage, hadn’t he been ‘asking for it’?” When fanatics threaten violence against people who simply use words, you should not blame the victim.’

    • There’s one very important point you missed — yes, it’s wrong that he’s held responsible for the mob’s acts. But it’s also illogical that he’s held responsible for Ashleigh Craig etc. being upset.

      They almost certainly were not on his friend list. The only way such people would have come across them is if others deliberately passed it on to them *because* they found them offensive. How can Azhar Ahmed be held responsible for this when it is clearly *other people* who caused the ‘victims’ to see them? If this law had any logic, would not *they* be the culpable?

      • Yes indeed. I’m glad you spotted that. I would have thought it should have been obvious to a judge as well. Apparently not.