The Israeli bombardment of Gaza of 27th December to 18th January 2009, provoked passionate protests across the UK. The familiar mass demos of the anti-war movement were supplemented by large spontaneous break-away demos and a wave of university occupations. The police used indiscriminate baton charges, kettles and heavy surveillance, in an effort to impose their control on the movement.
Islamic Human Rights Commission: is deeply concerned with the continued harsh sentencing administered against the London Gaza demonstrators. Islamic Human Rights Commission: fears that the defendants at the latest sentencing hearing on 19 February may face equally harsh sentences.
Ten demonstrators have already been sentenced to between 1 to 3 years. At the time of the demonstrations, two of those sentenced on 12 February were 16. One of them is a Palestinian who lost two cousins murdered by Israeli security forces days before the demonstration. The defendants had no prior convictions.
Islamic Human Rights Commission: is concerned the sentencing fails to take into account that grave police mismanagement and abuse of police powers contributed to the tense situation at the demonstrations. Judge Denniss called the police response on the demonstrations “measured”. However, IHRC in its report on the Gaza demonstration has documented evidence which shows that far from being measured, the police tactics were brutal and resulted in aggravating tensions.
Islamic Human Rights Commission: Chair Massoud Shadjareh said:
“We are concerned that such heavy sentencing, the subsequent confiscation of passports and other intimidatory measures are an attempt to deter protesting, in particular in support of Palestine, and by Muslims. The IHRC report on policing clearly documents the culpability of the police in the demonstrations which is, sadly, not at all reflected in the proceedings.”
Joanna Gilmore, Researcher in the School of Law at the University of Manchester, said:
“The police complaints system has yet again failed to hold the police to account for their behaviour. Despite the severity of the complaints and the nature of the injuries suffered by protesters, the IPCC has refused to investigate any of the complaints, in the distorted belief that the Metropolitan Police Service can do a good enough job of investigating itself. It is no surprise, then, that no police officer has faced charges, or even disciplinary action, as a result of their behaviour at these demonstrations. In contrast, scores of young Muslims have been subjected to dawn raids, gruelling court processes and lengthy prison sentences for their part in the protests. It is high time that these contradictions are exposed.”
For more information please contact the Press Office on (+44) 20 8904 4222 or (+44)7958522196, firstname.lastname@example.org. Interviews available. POLICING, PROTEST AND CONFLICT: A REPORT INTO THE POLICING OF THE LONDON GAZA DEMONSTRATIONS IN 2008 – 2009 by Adam Majeed, 96 pages, ISBN 978-1-903718-37-7, £7, spiral bound, publication date 28 January 2010. The report can be downloaded for free from: www.ihrc.org.uk
Harsh sentences delivered
On Friday 12th Feb in the morning last week the waiting room inside Islington Crown Court started to fill with some of the protesters who had taken part in the London-Gaza protests in January last year. They were there to be sentenced for their role in those protests. The defendants had all pleaded guilty to charges of violent disorder, some because of pressure from their lawyers, others as part of a plea bargain and in fear of a heavier sentence if they stuck to their original “not guilty” pleas. Also present were family members and friends who had come to lend their moral support. The atmosphere was one of tense, nervous anticipation. Most of the defendants had been told that they could expect to be sentenced to community service, which is what the author of the pre-sentence reports had recommended. Others expected a custodial sentence but, in light of their early “guilty” plea and other mitigating factors in their favour, a relatively short one.
However, the mood changed abruptly once the first sentence was read out and the young man in the dock was led away mutely to serve two years in a young offenders’ institution, while his family filed out of the court room in shock. As people in the waiting room crowded around trying to comfort the near-hysterical sister of the young man just sentenced, panic, fear and tears were evident among several of the others waiting for the court’s judgement.
That young man’s offence had been caught on CCTV: he had thrown a few sticks, struck a police horse twice and entered a branch of Starbucks after it had already been looted by others looking for things to throw during the demonstration. Despite his age at the time of the protests (19) and his of previously good character; the fact that he had entered a timely “guilty” plea (and was therefore entitled to full credit and a reduction in his sentence); was assessed to be a low risk in terms of re-offending and a low risk to the public; had shown remorse for his acts; he was a committed student in his second year of a three year course; and he cooperated fully with the police, it didn’t seem to matter when it came to sentencing.
The context of the protest
Moreover, it was brought to the court’s attention that the defendant was Palestinian and only came to Britain in 1990. He was, therefore, very naturally deeply affected by the war crimes that Israel was perpetrating in his homeland at the time of the demonstration he attended. He was there because the governments of the world were doing nothing to stop the Israeli onslaught. However, at no point in any of the cases before the court did the context of the protests get a mention. The prosecution at one point simply said that the protest was “linked to unhappiness with the conflict in Gaza”, a gross under-representation of the situation. The issue of context is vital as it goes to the very heart of the matter. The court was not dealing with a bunch of hooligans but a moral protest for a cause which had motivated over a hundred thousand people in Britain alone to make a stand.
In the case of another defendant who was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment last Friday, he attended the protest just days after two of his cousins had been murdered by Israelis in Palestine. It may be entirely the fault of his legal defence not to have raised this in terms of the effect it would have inevitably had on his mental state. Nevertheless, the judge was aware of the facts and while he said he that he took it into account, the sentence he passed suggests otherwise.
Police misconduct during the riots.
Another issue pushed to one side by the court was the behaviour of the police throughout the protest. The young man mentioned above now serving 2 years in a young offender’s institute, for example, said that the catalyst for his offence was being hit on the shoulder by a police baton. He also suggested that heavy-handedness by the police towards some women during the protest prompted many of men to react violently. The judge discounted this entirely, saying that of the 33 official complaints made against the police none were upheld. He failed to mention, however, that the complainants are now bringing civil actions against the Metropolitan Police because they are dissatisfied with the outcome of their complaints.
The judge also insisted that he had reviewed the police CCTV evidence as well as footage from SKY TV and had seen no evidence of police manhandling the women or of any police misconduct. Again, the defence team should have drawn to his attention a report such as that prepared by the Islamic Human Rights Commission which cites many sources and eyewitnesses supporting the defendants’ claims. Even a quick Google search would have given the defence some footage showing police malpractice.
Harsh sentences intended to deter violent disorder or to deter protesters altogether?
Fears that the sentences would be of a severity sufficient to deter others rather than just punish the offenders – as mentioned by MEMO in a recent article were confirmed when the judge said as much. He made it very clear that the harsh sentences were being issued, in part, to make an example of the protesters before him and to send a clear message that violent disorder in such a context was not to be tolerated. In passing his judgement, the judge made it abundantly clear that “those who take part do so at their peril.” He said that the public is entitled to look to the law for protection and that the number of people involved in the protest and the level of violence were aggravating factors. He admitted that the right to demonstrate is a hallmark of a strong democracy but said that what happened on that day went far beyond being lawful. Part of the reasoning he gave in passing his judgments was that the defendants had been in the “middle” of the crowd when violence broke out, or at the “front”, implying that their presence alone was enough to warrant punishment.
The question is, though, who was he trying to deter? As he said himself, the protesters before him all matched a similar profile. They were young men (primarily between the ages of 18-22) most of whom are of “previously good character”, they did well educationally and had bright prospects for the future. Many did volunteer work and other useful social activities in their free time. The judge admitted in his summing-up of each of the cases that MEMO sat through that none of the young men had set out deliberately to cause any trouble and he accepted that none of the misconduct had been premeditated. He made reference to the fact that no weapons had been brought from home and that no disguises, such as balaclavas, had been worn and that essentially they had all just got caught up in the events of the day. He made the point that there seemed to be a type of “mass-hysteria” afflicting the crowd and that the protesters simply got caught up in the events
In which case, who is he trying to deter by these sentences and what is he deterring them from? If he is trying to deter similar offenders, that means he is trying to deter other young men of good character and good educational and behavioural backgrounds. But what is he deterring them from? Is he trying to deter them from committing acts of violent disorder? Logic dictates that you cannot deter someone from a non-premeditated, spur of the moment act as committed by these young men and as admitted by the judge. That leaves us to conclude that part of the intention is to deter people from protesting altogether, which would be a travesty of justice in and of itself.
When Israel acts the way it did in December 2008-January 2009 and the evidence of its war crimes is transmitted into every household and no one with any power does anything to stop the Zionist state, it is vital that brave individuals such as those who came out in their hundreds of thousands to protest, feel safe enough to do so. It is important that protests are held in accordance with the law and in a peaceful, safe and lawful manner. Of that there is no disagreement. But when things go wrong it is also vital that the police and the courts take into account the context in its entirety. Instead of trying to deter people from protesting at all, they should work together to make sure that future protests do not degenerate into violence; that requires some modification of police behaviour and tactics as much as anything else. Lawful protest is a hallmark of our democracy and must be catered for in a safe environment. Protesters and police officers, please note.
The sentences passed on Friday were: one person for 12 months, three people for 18 months, two for 24 months and one person for 30 months
In the months that followed, these repressive police tactics began to take a less visible form, with police carrying out numerous dawn raids. A total of 93 people have been arrested and 72 charged. Some of these were denied communication with their solicitors and subjected to physical and psychological abuse. Most of the arrested were young Asians below the age of 19, with some as young as 12 years old. Almost all have now been charged with “violent disorder” and 10 people have already been jailed for 15 months – 3 years.
Many of those arrested have not received adequate legal advice and have been approached by police officers outside court under Section 62 of the Immigration Act, with threats to revoke their immigration status.
In this climate of intimidation and isolation, and in spite of flimsy evidence, 50 people have pleaded guilty and are due to be sentenced, starting from the 12th February at Isleworth Crown Court.
Judge Dennis who has taken on all the cases, has referred to the notoriouslyheavy sentences given out after the Bradford riots. These are the actions of a police state. Solidarity is urgently needed.
The courts jailed seven young people on Friday 12 Fed 2010 who had taken part in Stop the War’s protests against the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2008/2009. Aged between 17 and 25, the defendants had all pleaded guilty to charges of violent disorder at previous court hearings. Another three cases were delayed for the preparation of pre-sentence reports by the probation service. The judge claimed that sentences must act as a “deterrence” to other people intent on committing violent disorder.
Sentences were as high as two and a half years in prison. The police relied heavily on CCTV evidence, with many of the accused tracked by police intelligence teams on the demonstration and arrested later.
Two of the defendants were arrested in May, in their homes in the early hours of the morning. In one such arrest, police handcuffed the sister of one of the defendants and her husband for an hour while they searched the house and confiscated clothes and her laptop. The sister of another defendant said, “I’ll never go on a protest again”.
Judge Denniss called the police response on the demonstrations “measured”.
Another 50 demonstrators could also be imprisoned in the coming months. This comes after two protesters were jailed earlier this year. Layla Lahouidek and Bana Hablegiorge, aged just 19 and 20, were jailed for 15 months for violent disorder after pleading guilty to “vandalising a branch of Starbucks” at the protest. This time many of the accused are again under 20 years old – and almost all are Muslim. Protesters were standing up against Israel’s assault on Gaza which killed hundreds of people. Many were angered at the images of dead children and destroyed homes.
While the courts have pored over the actions of demonstrators, they have remained silent about the actions of the police. On the 10 January last year, officers trapped hundreds of protesters in the Hyde Park underpass, repeatedly baton-charging the crowd.
Protesters were later “kettled” in freezing temperatures, unable to leave for up to five hours. And riot police repeatedly crushed the crowd outside the Israeli embassy. The police have been selective over the release of CCTV evidence to defendants. They have only shown seconds-long snippets, isolating them from surrounding events. Some defendants are yet to be shown the CCTV evidence being used against them.
Joanna Gilmore, a researcher at Manchester University law school, who has been following the Gaza cases, says: “The police have refused to release surveillance videos under the Freedom of Information Act.” “They are using the evidence for criminal cases but won’t have it used against themselves.” Police have also refused to disclose whether undercover officers were present during the demonstrations. Over 30 complaints have been made about police violence on the protests. But the Independent Police Complains Commission has refused to investigate the complaints and has passed them over to the police.
And the police have dismissed all but two of the complaints.
Joanna says, “Two complaints were dismissed because the officer who allegedly struck the protesters covered up his identification number and refused to provide it when challenged. The police have made themselves immune from complaints. The behaviour of the police has exposed the hypocrisy of the government’s ‘community cohesion’ scheme, which is meant to build good relationships between the police and the Muslim community.”
The reputation of the police has been damaged by the repeated images of brutality surrounding the G20 protests in London in April last year. This has changed many ordinary people’s opinions of the police. “The police want to create an image of protesters and demonstrations as violent, but their intention with these cases is to intimidate the Muslim community in particular into not demonstrating,” says Joanna.For more information and ideas about what we can do visit: nomoreisolation.wordpress.com