It is that time of year again. That time of year when we all pause to remember those that have fought and given their lives to protect this country and all that we might believe it represents. Unfortunately it is also that time of year when messages like the one below are circulated around social media sites and emails in the hope of raising public outrage against those in society that disagree with the UK’s foreign policy, and perhaps those that do not feel that they can participate in the wearing of a poppy due to their various political beliefs.
The protest message cites three separate cases; Firstly, the case of Muslim man Tohseef Shah, who spray painted a war memorial with the slogan “Islam will dominate Osama is coming” and apparently walked free from court with just a fine.
Secondly, the case of another Muslim, Emdadur Choudhury, who burned a poppy during the Remembrance Day Two Minutes Silence and also left court with apparently only a fine.
And thirdly, the case of two men who spray painted a poppy onto a Mosque but, rather than just a fine, received a 12 month prison sentence.
The message above condemns the apparent disparity between these sentences and expresses disgust at the British justice system by encouraging those that agree to forward and share the message with their friends and family. One can almost hear the anguished cries on Facebook and Twitter of those suggesting that the law is an ass!
The cases described are in fact real as can be proven from the various newspapers that reported them, although it should be noted that Tohseef Shah actually received a two-year conditional discharge and was ordered to pay £500 compensation to the council along with £85 costs. He did not receive only a £50 fine as claimed in the above message although I am sure that to many that was still not enough of a punishment for his offence.
These cases caused considerable controversy and outrage in the UK when the message was originally ciirculated back in 2011 (and indeed ever since) with many people of the opinion that the sentences handed out to the Muslim men were too lenient while those given to the non-Muslims who painted the poppy on the Mosque were overly harsh in comparison. Is this some form of political correctness or affirmative action gone mad, or is it perhaps something else?
Given the information outlined in the message, it is understandable that many would feel outraged about the apparent outcome of these cases. However, there is more to these stories that should be told. Steven James Vasey and Anthony Donald Smith, the two men sentenced to 12 months prison, did more than just spray poppies and political messages on the mosque. They also defaced a nearby store and guest house, both of which were owned by Asian businessmen. Furthermore, an upstairs window on the store was smashed with a brick. Ironically, the store was reportedly selling Remembrance Day poppies at the time of the attack. Other evidence showed that the men had planned the attack beforehand. It was therefore pre-meditated and not an act that was a spur of the moment or drunken mistake. The attack was therefore considered to be racially motivated. The men in fact admitted conspiracy to commit racially aggravated criminal damage and were sentenced according to the law in October 2011.
In comparison a lack of evidence and a vagary of the law meant that Tohseef Shah was not charged with committing a religious or racially motivated crime when he spray painted a war memorial. It was instead decided that the man’s actions were politically, as opposed to religiously, motivated and the Crown Prosecution Service thus convicted him of just criminal damage.
Meanwhile, the poppy burner, Emdadur Choudhur, was only charged with a public order offence although the judge, Howard Riddle, who presided over the case has been castigated in the press for not handing down a stiffer penalty. It should be noted that this is the same judge who presided over John Terry’s trial earlier this year for disorderly behaviour within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress and the offence was racially aggravated in accordance with section 28 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, contrary to Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 and section 31(1)(c) and (5) of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. He also allowed the extradition of WikiLeaks boss Julian Assange to Sweden, and became the first Judge to allow live court Twitter reporting.
Ironically one could argue that the burning of a poppy is a fantastic example of what many brave serviceman gave their lives to protect – freedom of speech and expression. We may not all agree what is in fact proper and what is perhaps incredibly disrespectful but is burning a poppy any more disrespectful or wrong than targeting a specific ethnic group or religion and vandalising their property with grafitti or pig heads?
The protest message effectively cherry picks available cases as a means of creating the most impact. If the message had compared the Shah and Choudhury cases with another case in which Sunderland man Ryan Austin sprayed racist grafitti on a Mosque, its power would have been considerably curtailed. As with Shah and Choudhur, Austin was not sent to prison. He received only a fine for his crime. In two other cases in which pig heads were placed near the site of a proposed mosque, actions that could also be construed as religiously or racially motivated, those responsible again only received fines and community service rather than a prison sentence.
Furthermore, last year three teens were charged with incitement to hatred for allegedly burning a poppy and posting an image of the burning on Facebook. Two boys aged 17 and a 16-year-old, all from Coleraine, Londonderry, Northern Ireland, appeared before magistrates on 3rd November 2011 charged with incitement to hatred. The youngest boy was also charged with improper use of public electronic communications. And on Monday 12th November 2012 a Kent man was arrested after allegedly putting a picture of a burning poppy on Facebook. Kent Police said the man, from Aylesham, was arrested on suspicion of malicious telecommunications and was last night in police custody awaiting interview by officers.
One might also look at Sunderland’s James McClean who chose not to wear a shirt with a poppy emblazoned on it for the Black Cats’ Premier League fixture at Everton on the weekend of Remembrance Sunday. It had been suggested McClean, a Derry-born Republic of Ireland international, was motivated by the British Army’s treatment of Northern Ireland. The footballer has received a lot of criticism, especially on social media, for refusing to wear a poppy on his shirt. But is this surely not another example of free speech that any modern western society should be proud of? As Ally Fog writes in his recent Guardian article, police action over the posting of a picture of a poppy in flames on Twitter could well be the latest step towards a new totalitarianism. But perhaps that is a discussion for another day.
What we do know is that given the complexity of the legal system and the unique set of characteristics that define each and every case that come before the courts, drawing conclusions based on comparisons of sentences can be problematical at best and more than likely just fool-hardy. So what can we disseminate from the above facts. Was this a well meaning message from those who want all of us to show proper support to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for this country regardless of our political views, or was it alternatively right-wing propoganda that many do not bother to question and simply share, forward or retweet out of ignorance and thus driving a wedge further between the different ethnic groups in this country? I know which one I think it was. What about you?
So before you get outraged the next time someone posts some alleged facts on Facebook or Twitter perhaps question it first. You might be surprised what you learn. And finally for the record, I was proud to wear my poppy for the last few weeks and shall continue to do so for the rest of the month. But that does not mean I will be castigating those that refuse to do the same.
Note: I am incredibly grateful to Hoax-slayer.com for their own article from which this blog post is based upon. They have been debunking email hoaxes and exposing Internet scams since 2003 and they do great work.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the writer and this article does not constitute legal advice.