Dewsbury Magistrate’s Court. Grim Despair.

Dewsbury can hardly be described as a particularly picturesque place. This valley and its surrounding towns are largely characterised by the gloomy sandstone buildings left over from the industrial revolution. Maybe it’s just me, but the landscape around here feels grimly oppressive. I cannot help being reminded of the “dark satanic mills” which are mentioned in the William Blake poem written sometime around 1804. There’s a kind of bleakness which hangs over the place, like a dark cloud. Perhaps it is a ghost of the smog which must surely have hung in the air of this town in days gone by.

William Blake wrote and painted on the subject of empire and war; being acutely aware of, and concerned about imperialism, commercialisation of empire, and the senseless wars of kingdom and empire. As a leading writer of his period, he expressed these ideas eloquently and powerfully.

Not so Azhar Ahmed. His words of protest against the ongoing violence in Afghanistan were a case study in badly expressed anger. So much so that a spokesman for West Yorkshire Police said, “He didn’t make his point very well and that is why he has landed himself in bother.”

So now this 19 year boy finds himself facing Dewsbury Magistrate’s court, charged with a racially aggravated public order offence. He’s also facing a deluge of online racist abuse from serving soldiers and their Facebook friends, nationalist blogs, and doubtless numerous other repositories of cretinous reptiles.

I’m left wondering what would have happened if Azhar Ahmed had been a white teenager called Steve Williams. Would his Facebook post have been reported to the police by the people who saw it? Would he have been arrested? Would he have been charged with a “racially aggravated public order offence”?

But enough of that speculation: here we are, and we need to deal with brutal reality of the situation. Azhar is defending himself against a very serious charge of being brown and disagreeing with the war in Afghanistan. This is apparently an imprisonable offence, so he’d better do a very good job of convincing the court he wasn’t racially aggravating public order (or something). There won’t be much mileage in trying to convince the magistrate that he is actually white, so he’s going to have fall back on somebody actually reading what he wrote and being able to see that there isn’t the faintest trace of any racial element to his words. That shouldn’t be too difficult should it? Should it? Let’s recap on that post:

“People gassin about the deaths of Soldiers! What about the innocent familys who have been brutally killed.. The women who have.been raped.. The children who have been sliced up..! Your enemy’s were the Taliban not innocent harmful familys. All soldiers should DIE & go to HELL! THE LOWLIFE FOKKIN SUM! gotta problem go cry at your soldiers grave & wish him hell because thats where he is going..”

I’d ask any individual, be they a police officer, CPS decision maker, magistrate or judge, to point out the reference to nationality, ethnicity, religion or colour in the above. Please. Because I’ve looked really hard, and I still can’t find it.

But that’s enough for now. We’ll find out what Dewsbury Magistrate’s court makes of it soon enough. I’m holding out for some common sense, but experience tells me that this may take far too long to arrive.

All soldiers should DIE & go to HELL!

“People gassin about the deaths of Soldiers! What about the innocent familys who have been brutally killed.. The women who have.been raped.. The children who have been sliced up..! Your enemy’s were the Taliban not innocent harmful familys. All soldiers should DIE & go to HELL! THE LOWLIFE FOKKIN SCUM! gotta problem go cry at your soldiers grave & wish him hell because thats where he is going..”

Sufficiently offended and terrified? Keep that fear in mind.

The above is a Facebook post made by a 19 year old who is currently facing a charge of a racially aggravated public order offence, the precise details of which I have yet to confirm.

His name is Steve Williams. I have absolutely no idea why his post should be interpreted as racially motivated.



Ok: I lied. His name is Azhar Ahmed. That makes all the difference.

More to follow. Count on it.

Azhar Ahmed has since been convicted of sending a menacing communication contrary to section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 Sign our open letter objecting to Azhar Ahmed’s conviction here.

Footnote: if you’re wondering about the state of free speech in the UK, please READ THIS

Shaun Divin and Jordan McGinley jailed for Breach of the Peace by Scottish Court.

On 12 December 2011, Shaun Divin aged 16 was imprisoned for 4 years and 3 months and Jordan McGinley, 18 jailed for 3 years by Dundee Sheriff Court Sheriff Munro.

The two had acted as adminstrators on a Facebook page created by an unnamed 14 year old boy. The page was entitled “Riot in the Toon”.

Jordan McGinley had also posted a message “Only join if yir actually gonna come – if anyone has guns bring them down to this – kill some fucking daftys.”.

Shawn Divin posted various violent challenges on his own Facebook page, inciting rioting, looting and violence against the police. He also invited people to bring weapons to the “Riot in the Toon” event.

The full judgement can be found here.

Other news articles here:


“Facebook Two” 4 Year Facebook Riot Post Sentence Upheld

A court today upheld the four year sentences handed to Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan

The two had pleaded guilty to inciting crime against the Serious Crime Act 2007. After being sentence to four years in prison, the two appealed the severity of their sentence.

Today’s ruling was made by three judges, Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, Sir John Thomas and Lord Justice Leveson, who stated that Blackshaw “believed that the offences he was inciting would happen”, and that Sutcliffe-Keenan’s “Warrington Riots” webpage was a deliberate action and certainly no joke.

The Lord Chief Justice added that modern technology had done away with the need for direct personal communication, and it was wrong to suggest their offences had been minor simply because they had not gone door-to-door encouraging people to riot.

“Neither went from door to door looking for friends or like-minded people to join up with him in the riot. All that is true. But modern technology has done away with the need for such direct personal communication.”

“It can all be done through Facebook or other social media. In other words, the abuse of modern technology for criminal purposes extends to and includes incitement of very many people by a single step.”

“Indeed it is a sinister feature of these cases that modern technology almost certainly assisted rioters in other places to organise the rapid movement and congregation of disorderly groups in new and unpoliced areas.”

“What both these appellants intended was to cause very serious crime. All this was incited at a time of sustained countrywide mayhem.”

“The (sentencing) judge was fully justified in concluding that deterrent sentences were appropriate. These offenders were caught red-handed.”

Blackshaw had no previous criminal record, and had created a riot “event” page on Facebook to take place in a McDonalds car park.

Sutcliffe-Keenan admitted setting up a Facebook page called “The Warrington Riots” and sending invitations to 400 contacts before posting that it was a joke.

A superb opinion piece on the judgement can be read here:

More info here:



Freedom of Speech? What?! Even When the Author is Scumbag?

The conviction of Stephen Birrell for posting sectarian taunts on Facebook has challenged me a great deal.

Birrell posted vile, hateful sentiments at a time when sectarian violence between Celtic and Rangers football fans had reached a fearful level. With letter bombs being posted to Celtic Manager Neil Lennon and racist abuse hurled at Rangers striker El Hadji Diouf.

My instinct was that Birrell got what he deserved. He contributed to an atmosphere of sectarian, ethnic and racial hatred with the posts that he wrote, and I strongly hold the view that Birrell’s beliefs are wrong.

But should we convict and imprison people on the basis of what they believe, or even what they write?

I (and I hope the majority of society) consider that sectarianism is wrong. We consider this to be an indisputable fact. We KNOW it to be the case.

But can we sentence people for expressing views which we know to be wrong? What else does the majority of society “know” to be true? Can we as a society progress if we seek to silence views which oppose views which we “know” to be true?

I suppose that’s one of the terrible challenges of being a self-flagellating, wishy washy liberal libertarian: its impossible to hold any belief as inviolable truth, or to prevent others from expressing a view which one holds to be extremely damaging to our vision of a liberal society.

Or is it?

Stephen Birrell Jailed for Sectarian Facebook Posts

A 28 year old man from Glasgow, Stephen Birrell, has today been jailed for 8 months and handed a 5 year football banning order, after being charged with a breach of the peace.

Birrell posted comments on a Facebook group entitled [Celtic manager] “Neil Lennon Should Be Banned”

Birrell was arrested following a crackdown on sectarian violence in Glasgow and linked to rivalry between Celtic and Rangers football fans.

One of the comments, posted by Birrell a day before a Celtic v Rangers game on 2 March this year, read:

“Hope they all die. Simple. Catholic scumbags ha ha.”

Two days after the match he posted:

“Proud to hate Fenian tattie farmers.”

Birrell admitted writing the religiously and racially-motivated comments between 28 February and 8 March this year.

Sheriff Bill Totten said: “The use of modern communications to spread or support abuse or target groups of people because of their ethnic or racial background has no place in our modern society and has no place in genuine support for any football club.”

The Sheriff took into account the fact that Birrell had pleaded guilty to the offence, reducing his sentence from 12 months to 8 months, but also took into account Birrell’s previous history, which included a previous custodial sentence for attacking his pregnant girlfriend with a machete. Birrell had only recently been released from prison when he made his posts on Facebook

More info here:

Background: Stephen Birrell & David Craig

David Craig aged 23, from Paisley, and Stephen Birrell aged 27, from Glasgow, were charged with breach of the peace after being arrested at their homes early on Saturday 23rd April 2011.

A period of escalating sectarian violence and posturing between fans of the Glasgow Rangers and Celtic football clubs culminated in a letterbomb attack against Celtic Manager Neil Lennon clubs. This was followed by a police and political crackdown on sectarianism in Glasgow. It was during this period that Craig and Birrell were arrested.

Craig and Birrell had allegedly posted religious and racial hate comments about members of the Celtic and Rangers clubs, including Celtic Manager Neil Lennon and Rangers striker El Hadji Diouf.

The two appeared in court on 26th of April. Stephen Birrell is accused of breaching the peace by writing abusive messages online between February 28 and March 15 from various locations in Glasgow. David Craig was also charged with a breach of the peace.

More here:

Hollie Bentley Committal Hearing

Yesterday I attended Wakefield Magistrates court to witness the committal hearing for the Hollie Bentley case.

The hearing had been adjourned earlier last month when the CPS failed to get the paper ready in time for the hearing. Indeed, it was only hours before yesterday’s hearing that I received confirmation that this hearing was not to be adjourned. The CPS only provided the papers at the very last minute.

Hollie Bentley will appear at Leeds Crown Court charged with “Creating an event on the Facebook social networking site, capable of causing acts of public disorder, knowing that such an act may be committed”

I expect to attend the Crown Court case as well.


Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe Keenan – Appeal

Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe Keenan have appeared in court to appeal their 4 year custodial sentences for creating Facebook posts.

The Court of Appeal was told by the pair’s solicitors that their actions were “monumentally foolhardy” and “hugely stupid”.

More here:

Johnny Melfah – Courts Name a Minor Over his Facebook Posts

This story is posted some time after the story hit the news. Apologies for the lateness. The sheer volume of these cases appearing right now is quite difficult to keep up with.

Johnny Melfah

Johnny Melfah, aged 16, from Droitwich Worcestershire, posted messages to a Facebook group created by 21 year old Danny Cook, entitled “Letz Start a Riot” – it should be noted that Melfah did not create the group himself.

On 24th August 2011 he appeared at Worcester Youth Court, where he plead guilty to intentionally encouraging or assisting the commission of widespread thefts and criminal damage.

Matt Dodson, prosecuting, told the court that Melfah had posted messages about arranging a riot in Worcester city centre, including encouraging a raid on an Apple store for “free iPads”.

Magistrate Linda Griffin told Melfah: “I will be asking that the pre-sentence report looks at all possible options, including a custodial sentence.”

He is due to be sentenced at Worcester Youth court on 14 September.

The day before at Worcester Magistrates Court, a JP waived the anonymity usual granted to minors, ruling that identifying Melfah was in the public interest. Home Secretary Theresa May has also urged the courts to name youth defendants named in disturbances, where possible.

Sam Lamslade, defending Melfah, argued that the restrictions should not be lifted as his family had already suffered “some effects in their area” as a result of his identification. On the basis of what we have seen in other cases, it seems almost certain that these “effects” will include threats of physical violaence against Melfah and his immediate family.

Sam Lamslade also added that Melfah’s recently started apprenticeship could be under jeopardy were his name to be published, as his employer may also suffer adverse publicity.

However, Magistrate Linda Griffin decided that Melfah could be named despite his age.

Read more:

Fear and Loathing in Wakefield: Hollie Bentley

I’ve recorded the facts of Hollie Bentley’s magistrate’s court appearance already. I would now like to add my own personal perceptions of the event.

When I arrived at the magistrate’s court today my heart was in my mouth. I can only begin to imagine the feelings that Hollie and her family were experiencing. It must be truly terrifying to be catapulted from a simple Facebook post, into an inexorable legal process which has already applied its most fearsome punishments against other Facebook users.

I learned that Hollie and her family had been subjected to physical threats from visitors to their home and from internet users. I found myself wondering how people managed to lose their sense of perspective so badly: what drives people to threaten a teenage girl with violence over something they wrote on a website? When did it become acceptable to exercise vigilante justice on a young person because you don’t agree with what they said?

The only answer I could come up with, was that some people have been whipped up into such a state of fear and paranoia by the recent riots that they have lost any sense of scale. I have to wonder to what extent this could be the fault of the mainstream media: newspapers and television.

Hollie is not unlike many teenage girls. She seemed shy and quiet, smiling nerviously as she sat in the waiting area before the hearing began. She sat and chatted to a university student friend of hers, who had attended the hearing to show moral support to Hollie. I got the feeling that Hollie had very little real conception of the enormous political and legal machine which appears to have set its great implacable heart against her.

Looking at her, I don’t see a master criminal who was orchestrating civil disobedience from her Facebook account. I see a teenage girl who made a controversial and arguably misguided Facebook post. I cannot visualise this girl arriving in Wakefield town centre on 13-14th August and throwing chairs through the window of JJB Sports in the company of her Facebook friends.

Listening to the magistrate during the hearing, I experienced a sensation of creeping dread. She talked of the lengthy sentences handed down to others found guilty of encouraging violent disoder under the Serious Crime Act in the past 2 weeks. She spoke of how people had died during the riots. She referred the case on to a higher court, which had greater sentencing powers.

If Hollie is found guilty of this offence under the Serious Crime Act, she will at the very least end up with a criminal record. If she is given a custodial sentence, she will be torn out of her community and away from her parents. On the basis of a Facebook post, which was at its very worst foolish, she will be thrown into a criminal system which will chew her up and spit her out, in order to make an example of her. The modern equivalent of placing her head upon a spike outside the Tower of London.

For the simple fact of showing support to the rioters, Hollie Bentley is facing criminalisation. For the purposes of the Serious Crime Act, it is necessary for the accused to have intended to cause a crime to be committed. However, the judicial system seems to be requiring Facebook users caught up in this process to prove their innocence, rather than requiring the prosecution to prove their guilt.

It is as if the vigilante behaviour of the public has now spread to our judicial system.