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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 July 2007, 15:46 GMT 16:46 UK
How far can freedom of speech go?
By Jon Silverman
Legal Analyst

Four Islamic radicals have been jailed for their part in a protest in London against the publication of Danish cartoons satirising the Prophet Muhammad.

But where does the case leave our right to freedom of speech?

Protesters in London
The protesters gathered outside the Danish Embassy in London

Given the gravity of the offences of which they were convicted, the sentences on four men jailed for their part in protests against the publication of anti-Muslim cartoons are not excessive.

Three of the four received six years each for soliciting murder. The maximum penalty for the offence is life imprisonment.

The fourth man got four years for stirring up racial hatred. The maximum under the Public Order Act is seven years.

Three months ago, the former Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, talked of a need "to step up our game" against those who preached and advocated extremism.

Given the amount of inflammatory rhetoric, there have been very few prosecutions
James Libson
Mishcon de Reya

The latest sentences, coming soon after long jail terms imposed on three men convicted of spreading extremist material through a website, can be seen as a judicial reflection of that commitment.

Comparisons with another case, in which five white supremacists were convicted of conspiracy to stir up racial hatred, show that judges appear to be fairly consistent in dealing with this crime.

In the earlier case, heard at the Old Bailey in October 2005, the men got jail terms ranging from one year to five years. But they pleaded guilty and are likely to have benefited from a discount.

Nevertheless, such trials raise issues of freedom of speech and whether juries are biased against Muslim defendants.

The language used by some of the cartoon protesters may have been ethically unacceptable but where was the evidence that it was intended to incite murder?
Reza Kazim
Islamic Human Rights Commission

Those who have concerns point to the acquittal in 2006 of the BNP leader, Nick Griffin, also charged with inciting racial hatred.

James Libson, head of litigation at the firm, Mishcon de Reya, said that, paradoxically, perceptions of unfairness might be addressed if there were more prosecutions of Muslim extremists.

"Given the amount of inflammatory rhetoric, there have been very few prosecutions. They have tended to be where there have been threats to kill, so juries are more likely to convict.

"If there are more prosecutions of people, such as preachers, who incite hatred and violence, I think there will be a greater variety of verdicts."

'Double standards'

The Griffin case differed from that of the Muslim protesters in that his rhetoric was deployed in a private meeting of party activists rather than at a public gathering.

He also argued that he was attacking a religion, not a race.

Three of the Muslim protesters, Mizanur Rahman, Umran Javed and Abdul Muhid, as well as facing charges under the 1986 Public Order Act, were also charged with soliciting murder under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.

Mizanur Rahman
Mizanur Rahman was the last of the cartoon demonstrators to be tried

Reza Kazim of the Islamic Human Rights Commission sees double standards at work.

"The language used by some of the cartoon protesters may have been ethically unacceptable but where was the evidence that it was intended to incite murder? Whereas, we know that BNP rhetoric has led directly to attacks on Muslims and others."

Islamophobia

Barrister and academic, Dr Amir Majid, said there had to be limits on freedom of speech and he was not opposed to prosecuting those who made threats to kill.

"But, in the current climate of heightened concern about terrorism, I am worried that the Attorney-General may succumb to pressure to authorise prosecutions in cases which do not warrant it. And that could provoke strong resentment."

At the demonstrations against publication of the cartoons, there was other behaviour which is likely to lead to greater use of the criminal law in future.

Flag burning and dressing as a suicide bomber is regarded by the police as highly provocative and it is likely that powers under the Terrorism Act 2006 to remove material from websites and the application of anti social behaviour orders will be used more frequently.

Reza Kazim argues that existing powers are quite strong enough and that politicians are stoking up Islamophobia.

Not for the first time, the boundary between freedom of speech and security is proving a legal and political minefield.




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