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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 October 2006, 19:00 GMT 20:00 UK
Flag-burning could become crime
By John Pienaar
Chief political correspondent for BBC Radio Five Live

Associated Press
Cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad sparked global protests

Police chiefs are urging the government to make flag-burning a new criminal offence, as part of a drive to crack down on Islamic extremists and others preaching violence and religious hate, the BBC has learned.

The proposals also include action to ban demonstrators from covering their faces to avoid police scrutiny, and tougher powers to arrest demonstrators seeking to inflame tensions.

They have been drawn up by Scotland Yard, and submitted to the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith, by Britain's most senior muslim police chief, Assistant Commissioner Tarique Ghaffur.

He is responsible for public order in the capital as commander of central operations.

Mr Ghaffur told BBC Radio Five he was concerned Britain had come to be seen at home and abroad as soft on extremist demonstrators.

If they [the public] start to see images of people who seem to be 'getting away with it', that [the tolerance of people] starts to erode

Assistant Commissioner Tarique Ghaffur

"There appears to be a growing public perception that policing of demonstrations is unduly lenient," he said.

"That view was shared by law-abiding citizens of all backgrounds.

"The reason this is a great country is the tolerance of people.

"If they start to see images of people who seem to be 'getting away with it', that starts to erode."

He said police wanted "a change in the law on the burning of flags - to make that illegal".

Other proposals included a police power, when approving demonstrations and marches, to attach conditions covering banners and making clear demonstrators should not cover their faces.

He emphasised that it did not include Muslim women wearing the veil.

Responding to his comments, a Home Office spokeswoman said: "As far as we are aware, the police have found existing powers to cope with public order offences adequate, but ministers will always listen to representations from the police who can contact them with their views."

The BBC's Weekend News programme has been told Lord Goldsmith, is preparing a package of announcements.

These are being discussed between ministers who will decide how far existing public order and anti-terror laws can be used more actively and consider police calls for changes in the law.

London protest last February over cartoons of Prophet Muhammad
The covering of faces could also become illegal on protests

"Everything is on the table," said a source close to the attorney general.

"We are hoping to announce a national strategy for dealing with these people in November."

Assistant Commissioner Ghaffur, who has been holding detailed talks with Lord Goldsmith, warned senior officers would be ready to take a tougher line in dealing with flag-burners and extremists exploiting demonstrations, whether or not ministers decide on early changes in the law.

He caused controversy in August when he warned new anti-terror laws and policing those laws could risk criminalising minority communities.

But he has now insisted the new proposals would command the support of law-abiding Muslims and others, since they are clearly aimed at extremists trying to stir up hatred and deepen divisions.

Mr Ghaffur made clear there was no intention to interfere with the right, for example, of Muslim women to wear the veil.

The target of police action should be those trying to conceal their identities to frustrate police intelligence gathering and law enforcement.

Civil rights group Liberty described the proposed new laws as "unnecessary".

Shami Chakrabarti, Liberty's director, said: "It looks like some people have been watching too many American movies.

"We will have to look at the detail of these proposals but the police already have wide powers, especially for dealing with people wearing masks".

But Labour MP Shahid Malik backed the suggestions.

"The burning of flags at demonstrations or pickets is quite clearly an act which has the power to incite violence.

"It is intimidating and often allows a few thugs to hijack an otherwise legitimate and peaceful protest."

Some of the activities police chiefs want to ban

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