| ||The Guardian on Saturday carried a double page spread on some of the young Muslims who have been at the receiving end of harsh prison sentences for their participation in demonstrations over Gaza last January. |
The paper reports:
‘Badi Tebani and his wife were sleeping peacefully when all hell broke loose. He shudders at the memory. The front door was forced open, and then came the screaming. "Wah, wah, wah, get down, get down, you are under arrest." Any number of voices. He thought it was a nightmare – that he was back in Algeria in the bad old days before he was granted political asylum in Britain, and that the military had broken into the house. When he opened his eyes, his bedroom was full of police officers. "I have diabetes and high blood pressure," he says quietly. "It was worse than Algeria, even. I became very depressed."
‘It was 5am, April 2009. Badi's eldest son Hamza, 23, takes up the story. "I woke up and tried to get out of bed. The next thing is three police officers jump on top of me with their knees, and they handcuffed me so hard I screamed. That's when I really woke up." Hamza had been sleeping in shorts. When he asked if he could put a shirt on the police said no and opened the window. "It was freezing. I was shaking."
‘His three brothers, the youngest of whom was 15 at the time, were also handcuffed. Hamza says there were too many officers to count – somewhere between 20 and 30. They took computers, clothes, iPhones, everything. "I've never been in trouble, never been to the police station except when my car was broken into, and they were treating me as a criminal. One of the officers was playing card games with my iPhone, another was just ordering coffee."
‘But it wasn't Badi or Hamza the police were after. It was Yahia, one of Hamza's younger brothers. When Yahia heard that the police were looking for him he was confounded. "I didn't know why they were there, and then I hear my name and I'm shocked."
‘Three months earlier, in January last year, Yahia had been outside the Israeli embassy on a fractious demonstration against Israel's sustained bombing of Gaza.
‘Protesters complained that the demonstration was policed provocatively and that they had been "kettled" inside a tunnel and beaten. Meanwhile, the police complained that they had been assaulted by demonstrators.
‘Yahia, 18, says both accounts are true. He claims that the policing was aggressive and intimidatory, and that demonstrators responded by throwing sticks and bottles at the embassy and the officers, who were wearing full-body shields.
‘At Isleworth crown court in London, where the cases are being heard, a disturbing pattern is emerging. Most of the 78 protesters charged with public order offences were young men in their late teens or 20s. Many were students. And nearly all were Muslim. Some 22 protesters have already received prison terms of up to two and a half years for public order offences, and more cases are due to come before the courts in the coming months.
‘The Gaza Protesters Defence Campaign has been formed by the families of some of those arrested, together with sympathetic MPs, the Stop the War Coalition and CND. The campaign aims to highlight the perceived injustice, and has launched a petition which will be presented to the attorney general and the director of public prosecutions.
‘…Joanna Gilmore, a researcher at the University of Manchester's law school who has monitored the cases, gets to her feet the room is already full, and latecomers are forced to listen from the corridor. "The vast majority of the people involved here are of exemplary character," she says, to mutters of approval. "The demonstrations were overwhelmingly peaceful and if you compare the relatively minor disturbances that took place with the violence on other demonstrations these sentences are very severe."
‘Gilmore, who has followed all the court cases, says the police arrested more people at the Gaza protests than at any political demonstration since the poll tax riots, when about 90 were charged with public order offences. At last year's G20 demonstrations, during which a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland was looted, 20 were charged.
‘"Many were on their first demonstration and were protesting because they were appalled about what was happening in Gaza," Gilmore says. "These people and their families are in shock and say that they will never take part in political demonstrations again."
‘Dr Khalil al-Ani says his son Mosab was one of the lucky ones. There was no pre-dawn raid, no handcuffs, no ransacking. He was simply asked to surrender his passport to the police. Months after throwing an empty Orangina bottle – the police said it was at them, Mosab said it was at the Israeli embassy gates – he was charged. Mosab, who was on a medical access course, hoped to be a dentist or dental technician. He is now in prison serving a one-year sentence.
‘It was the first demonstration Mosab had been on since his family marched against the Iraq war in 2003. Al-Ani, an Iraqi who works as a GP in Wakefield and Leeds, was pleased his son would be on the march. His two sisters were also going, and Al-Ani felt Mosab, then 20, would protect them.
‘Mosab was arrested on the day and taken to a police station where he admitted throwing the bottle, apologised, and stressed that he had not aimed it at the police. He was released and returned to Yorkshire, but didn't tell his father what had happened – he didn't want to worry him, and he assumed it was the last he would hear of it.
‘"He didn't think it was serious because how many times have you seen something like this or more serious and nothing happens." Al-Ani stops, and apologises for his tears. "I'm sorry I get so emotional. I came to this country in 1981. You can hear by the way I speak my accent is not purely British. It is a foreign accent after all these years. But Mosab was born here in 1988 – he is British in every sense. This is the first time I feel that because he's a Muslim he's been discriminated against. What he did was certainly wrong, but he should be treated similar to a British citizen. He's gone to prison for a single bottle that didn't hurt anybody."
‘The astonishing thing is, he says, that the judge gave Mosab a flawless character reference. "He said, 'I know you came here peacefully, I know you have an excellent character, I know you were not armed, you said sorry to the police.'" He was sure his son would go free. "I was so pleased. Then the judge says, 'I'm going to give you this sentence to deter other people.'"
‘Back in north London, Badi Tebani is looking at the door the police forced open. As they left the house, they made a point of telling him it was still in one piece. "When they finished their work, the police officers show me the door and say, 'It's not broken, look, look,' and they took a photograph. I told him, it doesn't matter if you broke the door, you broke my life."
And The Guardian today prints letters in response to the Saturday feature which rightly point to the inconsistencies of the harsh sentencing and the Government’s policy objectives of getting Muslims participating in politics, as well as reinforcing the importance of the community-led approach to preventing extremism. One wonders how police can expect Muslims to ‘do more’ to tackle extremism when their taking part in legitimate protest is not only subject to aggressive policing, but then leaves them vulnerable to cruel mistreatment by the courts.
Among the letters printed today is this one from Professor Haim Bresheeth of UEL:
‘On reading the report on the arrest and conviction of many young Muslims over the January 2009 demonstrations against the massacre in Gaza, a number of uncanny similarities strike one with the situation in Palestine. The first is the reported police brutality in response to low-level violence, where the Israeli security forces use similar methods.
‘The second parallel is the behaviour of the legal systems. Israel's overlooks the war crimes in Gaza reported by Judge Goldstone, but is keen on arresting and holding without charge boys of 10, and treating boys of 12 who throw stones as terrorists. Meanwhile, the London courts seem as keen to throw young Muslims in jail, as Gordon Brown is prepared to bend the legal system after the election so as to not inconvenience those responsible for ordering and managing the massacres in Gaza. Certainly, if Britain set out to create Muslim radicalism, it could do no better.’
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