Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Racially aggravated public order charge for wishing all soldiers dead and damned

It's really hard to know where to begin with this one. There is so much wrong with the charging of 19 year old Azhar Ahmed from Ravensthorpe, West Yorkshire over a comment he posted on Facebook in which he said the following:
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 harmless familys. All soldiers should DIE & go to HELL! THE LOWLIFE FOKKIN SCUM! gotta problem go cry at your soliders grave & wish him hell because that where he is going...
This is what the man is reported to have said. There are no other comments reported. I don't like the sentiment expressed here very much. I'll bet you don't either. I understand it though. It is an expression of strong emotion and strong opinion. Frustration and anger feature strongly. There is some hatred expressed for sure. But this is not an incitement to hatred or violence. So I'm more than a bit surprised that the police and the CPS decided to arrest Ahmed and charge him with "racially aggravated public order offences". According to a police spokesperson, Ahmed "didn't make his point very well and that is why he has landed himself in bother."

Racially aggravated? What a minute. What about this posting is racially provocative? "Your enemy's [sic] were the Taliban... All soldiers should DIE & go to HELL! THE LOWLIFE ... SCUM!" Seriously, what about this is racial? I'm scratching my head. The only thing I can think of is that the author of the post has a Muslim sounding name, he was commenting in the context of the reporting of the deaths of white British soldiers in Afghanistan, and the war in Afghanistan is ostensibly one being fought by the West against an evil Islamist ideology. It is "racially aggravated" because of his race. But Ahmed refers to "all soldiers", not just white British ones. He is making a somewhat outrageously exaggerated but clearly political statement about war and "collateral damage". This is a matter of public interest.

What about this is even a public order issue? Is anyone likely to be alarmed or distressed by this wish for the death and damnation of all soldiers the world over? Is this likely to give rise to the fear of violence? If the answer to either of these is yes, then do we accept beyond a doubt that Ahmed was aware of the inciting nature of his words? As best I can tell, Ahmed would have been charged under one or more provisions of the Public Order Act 1986. See CPS charging guidelines here: http://www.cps.gov.uk/legal/p_to_r/public_order_offences/. He may have been charged under any of sections 4, 4A and 5 under Part I New Offences of the Act, or more likely he would have been charged with sections 18 or 19 under Part III Racial Hatred : "Acts intended or likely to stir up racial hatred". Reports suggest that he has been charged with more than one. All of these have a strong burden of intent which would be very difficult to prove from the facts on offer.

Blogger Harry Patterson does the best job I've seen in highlighting the sheer absurdity of this case. In A Tale of Two States, Patterson explains how it is perfectly acceptable for the perceived victims of racist abuse to commit worse acts of abuse in retaliation. Perhaps this is the reason for the public order warning. People who are too stupid or too blinkered to understand non-threatening disagreeable speech are apt to respond in an aggressive and threatening manner. We see it all the time.

Controversial speech, especially the offensive kind, can provoke strong reactions. It challenges rigid orthodoxy and forces us to examine our beliefs. Atheists receive death threats from religious fanatics. Catholics are vilified by liberal atheists as bigots for their views. People behave badly. But we mustn't hold the communicator of his own version of truth responsible for the childish reactions of others. Instead we should try to understand his truth even if we are not prepared to accept it. In short, we all need to grow up and the State needs to stop treating us like children who are liable to throw a tantrum at the slightest provocation.

Azhar Ahmed will appear before Dewsbury magistrates on Tuesday, the 20th of March.

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