Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Making War, Using Law

HOW far is British law, as well as police action, being twisted into a means to punish and intimidate anyone who opposes Israeli aggression and solidarises with the Palestinians? We heard Israeli Zionists fuming and raging about the possibility that some of their generals and politicians could be arrested if they set foot here, and charged with war crimes. That arose from a citizens' initiative led, in the first place, by an Israeli born lawyer. First time it was going to be tried the Israeli general was tipped off by someone in the Metropolitan Police, and stayed on his El Al plane at Heathrow. Since then British ministers have done nothing but apologise to the Israelis, and promise to remove the offending legislation.

It's another matter when maintaining 'order' in Britain. Those responsible for the law are far less considerate, or even neutral.

Last year, on my way home from a demonstration in Trafalgar Square over the onslaught on Gaza, I was overtaken by a crowd of angry kids for whom listening to speeches was obviously not enough. They turned left into Shaftesbury Avenue, heading west towards the embassy. Police cars came haring up, disgorging officers who had been taken by surprise and I guessed would be mad at this.

Later when we did have an official march heading for the embassy - or supposed to go past it - most of us probably realised on clocking the police in Kensington High Street as well in front of Palace Green, many in riot gear, that discretion being the better part of valour, it might be a good idea to furl our banners as soon as decently possible, and make off down side streets, before they trapped us.

Unfortunately many of those whose feelings had rightly been aroused by the agony of Gaza were new to the game we call demos, and the ways of the police, and I doubt they would have listened to words of caution. But that's no excuse for the way they have been treated, not just by police, but by the courts one year later.

Some 78 people have been charged with public order offences. In February and March almost two dozen young men, mostly Muslim, appeared at Isleworth Crown Court, and were sentenced to between eight months and two and a half years imprisonment. That rather puts my two quid fine for defacing the War Office during the Cuban missile crisis into the shade. (A crowd of us had turned from the well-defended US embassy in Grosvenor Square and swept through the West End and down to Whitehall before the police moved in. Myself and a mate spent a night at Rochester Row police station. But they were pretty gentle in those days).

Angered by the Gaza slaughter, frustrated and provoked, by police "kettling" tactics, some of these youth appear to have done little more heinous than throwing a plastic bottle towards the embassy. None so far as I know have killed anybody. Compare this with a case I remember a decade ago when, not far from that Isleworth court, a group of young men who kicked a Chinese student to death and were charged with manslaughter received sentences of three years and less. Mind you, none of them had Moslem names.

Yahia Tebani, a teenager, took part with tens of thousands on the Gaza demonstrations, and at one of these he was among people "kettled" by a police cordon, and only let out slowly, having to give their names and addresses to police and be filmed before they could go. Sarah Irving, on the Electronic Intifada website, describes what happened next:

At 5 am one April morning, police forced their way into the Tebani family's home. Yahia's father Badi Tebani and his family were ordered to lie on the floor. "His four sons were all handcuffed. Three police officers knelt on the back of Hamza, 23. He was sleeping in shorts, but they refused to let him put on any clothes, even though they'd opened the windows, letting in the cold. Computers, mobile phones and clothes were all taken and the family car was broken into. Badi and Hamza described how police played games on the boys' iPhones and made themselves coffee in the kitchen.

The entire family was shocked when they discovered that it was Yahia the police were after. "He is a student at university, he has never has been in prison or in trouble with the police," says Badi Tebani. "He's always had a good character, good behaviour."

Yahia was later charged with violent disorder, an offence which carries a jail term of up to five years. He says that during the demonstration he took a chair from a nearby Starbucks to sit on, but police alleged that the cafe was trashed and the furniture used as weapons. Yahia was advised that if he pleaded guilty to the charge he would get community service, so he followed his lawyer's advice. He didn't know that most of the protesters who did the same were being sent straight to jail, so he was shocked when a friend was handed a two-year sentence. Yahia is now serving a one-year prison term.
(See article in full,
UK's discriminatory criminalization of dissent
Sarah Irving, The Electronic Intifada, 13 April 2010

Parents like Badi Tebani cannot see why their youngsters are being treated as such criminals, considering the atrocious crimes they were moved to protest against. But the courts don't seem to consider public feeling over the war, nor police behaviour at the time. Police are using CCTV evidence but don't allow access to parts which might show them in a bad light. That defendants are young people, without previous records, who acted from understandable, human motives, does not seem to count. Judge Denniss at Isleworth Crown Court in West London, has made it clear that he is imposing "deterrent" sentences. "A 15-year-old boy was given a non-custodial sentence which involves a curfew and an electronic tag, while a Palestinian who only days earlier had seen images in the newspapers of dead relatives in Gaza was given a two-year jail term" (Irving, ibid).

The number of arrests alone, not to mention the custodial sentences, is way out of proportion to what happened on other large demonstrations, and certainly contrasts with the response so far to English Defence League rampages, even when as in Dudley they threw things at police.

MPs Jeremy Corbyn and George Galloway have tabled a motion in parliament, and the Stop The War Coalition, has collected more than 1,500 signatures on a petition against the sentences. Police conduct attracted 55 complaints to the Metropolitan Police and the Independent Police Complaints Commission. A number of these were dropped because the ID numbers on officers' uniforms had been covered up.

Meanwhile, a case in Scotland has gone differently, for now Five Palestine solidarity campaigners who protested during an Edinburgh Festival concert given by the Jerusalem Quartet in 2008 had been charged with “racially aggravated conduct”. On Friday they learned that all charges were being thrown out.

The protesters, members of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign (SPSC), (which is separate from the main Palestine Solidarity Campaign), had been concerned about the Israeli siege on Gaza, and also saw their action as part of the boycott campaign against Israel. They argued that the Quartet is regularly sponsored by the Israeli government, and entertains Israeli troops, so is a legitimate target for protest.

I have my doubts about the value, or justice, of a cultural boycott, and the tactic of upsetting concert goers. Disrupting cultural events - in that case visiting Soviet artists - was a method used by the right-wing Zionist youth, Betar, and the Kahanites, and everyone knows they are fascist thugs . On the other hand, I can understand the feeling that while people are being starved or killed, the bourgeoisie should not be allowed to pretend everything is normal; and the calculation that quiet, peaceful protest is all very well, but does not receive any publicity.

Anyway, whatever you think of the concert protests - (there has been another one recently when the Jerusalem Quartet played the Wigmore Hall in London) - it is a bit much when people seeking to protest against racism are charged, not with causing a disturbance, or some such offence, but with racialism. The protest took place on August 29, 2008, and the Scottish protesters were originally charged with "breach of the peace", but it was after a quite big breach of the peace, the war on Gaza, that the Procurator Fiscal changed the charge to “racially aggravated conduct”.

To make this stick, the campaigners had been accused of making “comments about Jews, Israelis, and the State of Israel”. But a BBC audio recording of the event revealed that there had been no reference made to “Jews”. Comments included “They are Israeli Army musicians”, “End the Siege of Gaza”, “Genocide in Gaza”, and “Boycott Israel”.

Sheriff James Scott ruled that “the comments were clearly directed at the State of Israel, the Israeli Army, and Israeli Army musicians”, and not targeted at “citizens of Israel” per se. “The procurator fiscal’s attempts to squeeze malice and ill will out of the agreed facts were rather strained”, he said.

The Sheriff expressed concern that to continue with the prosecution would have implications for freedom of expression generally:
“if persons on a public march designed to protest against and publicise alleged crimes committed by a state and its army are afraid to name that state for fear of being charged with racially aggravated behaviour, it would render worthless their Article 10(1) rights. Presumably their placards would have to read, ‘Genocide in an unspecified state in the Middle East’; ‘Boycott an unspecified state in the Middle East’ etc.
“Having concluded that continuation of the present prosecution is not necessary or proportionate, and therefore incompetent, it seems to me that the complaint must be dismissed.”

So far so good. Thank whatever you believe in for Scottish law.

But Mr Fraser, the Procurator Fiscal Depute, said he would be appealing the ruling.

The prosecution seem awfully keen to get a result in this case, regardless of expense, for what after all was but a minor incident. Maybe there's a shortage of crime in Scotland these days, so they are having to scratch around for matters to keep the courts busy? But we thought "Try, try and try again!" was only Robert the Bruce's motto.

Or could it be the concert case was meant to set a precedent for dealing with boycotts, even introducing the lie that "anti-Zionism is antisemitism" into law?

Not that I am suggesting the police and judiciary are being influenced by political considerations. ... but that seems fairly obvious. What we need to clarify is just what those considerations are, and where they re coming from.

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