CPGB-ML members were part of the picket outside the Royal Courts of Justice on Tuesday 13 July. To date, 26 people, overwhelmingly young, muslim and completely innocent, have been sent to jail for terms as long as two and a half years following protests against the Israeli massacre in Gaza 18 months ago, while 14 others have received non-custodial sentences The picket in the Strand, London was in support of 10 of these Gaza protesters, whose appeals were being heard in the court.
Sentences in seven of the cases being appealed were reduced by between three and 18 months. They remained, however, draconian. On the one hand, the appeal judges ruled that the sentencing started from too high a level, and so made some reductions. On the other hand, they upheld and repeated the reasons given by the trial judge for imposing prison sentences, namely, that “attacks on police” would not be tolerated and examples had to be made.
Every month less in prison is important for those sentenced and their families. But the remaining sentences and the whole process of being arrested, charged and tried have taken chunks out of the lives of young people whose only ‘crime’ was to protest against the barbarous action of the zionist state of Israel during its unforgivably brutal massacre of the citizens of Gaza in December 2008/January 2009. In addition, they now have criminal records that will seriously affect their lives and livelihoods, not to mention the interruption to their education. One of those convicted, for example, was training to become a dentist.
The British state had clearly decided that opposition to Israel was not going to be tolerated. Israel, after all, is the gendarme of imperialism in the Middle East. Imperialism has enough blood on its hands, acquired in pursuit of its rapacious interests, for it not to worry about Israel spilling the blood of Palestinians. The only problem for British and US imperialism during the Gaza massacre was Israel’s public image – protests by ordinary people were only going to make that worse and had to be stopped.
And so the British capitalist state apparatus swung into action. Police confronted the immediate and spontaneous protests that formed outside the Israeli embassy from 31 December 2009 and in the days following. Among their armoury they had long riot shields and extendable batons, and they used both as offensive weapons.
There were some arrests at the time, but there also followed extensive police scrutiny of CCTV footage and then months later the police swooped in dawn raids on homes, nearly all of whom were muslim. They handcuffed families and took away young men. In these raids, 119 people were arrested, of whom 78 were later charged.
At this point, the prosecution service and courts took over the offensive.
The whole judicial process has shown that this has been an exercise in promoting the interests of the ruling class, and has little connection with justice. The police attacked innocent demonstrators with impunity, while demonstrators were imprisoned for the ‘crime’ of being on the receiving end!
For example, twins Russell and Ashley Inglis were each hit hard on the side of the head by a policeman during the Gaza demonstration. They could not identify him because his number was covered. They complained and the IPPC, the police complaints body, referred it back to the police for internal investigation. London’s notorious Metropolitan Police (Met) said they could not identify the officer so there was no case to answer! The twins appealed, only to get the same answer again. They then took up a civil claim through a solicitor and the Met have now been forced to pay £25,000 compensation.
Investigative journalist Nicola Cutcher, noting how slow and reluctant the police were in the above case, pointed out that “By contrast, no effort was spared to pinpoint protesters. Following the Gaza demonstration police officers spent months trawling through hours of CCTV footage to identify protesters and compile dossiers …”
She went on to deal with the way the police manipulated the CCTV material. “Demonstrator Jake Smith was charged with two counts of violent disorder. These charges were later dropped when Smith’s solicitor, Matt Foot, viewed the original CCTV footage and discovered that the video the police submitted had been edited to show events out of sequence, at one point implying another man was Smith, while omitting footage of Smith being assaulted by a police officer without provocation. Considering the potential for abuse of power, the control that the police have had over the use of CCTV is frightening.” (guardian.co.uk, 20 July 2010)
She added that Matt Foot was also concerned that the police had made each solicitor sign an undertaking that (edited!) CCTV footage passed to them by the Met could be shown to no one except their client. This made it difficult for defence solicitors to work together, or gain a wider picture of the demonstrations. In the light of this, it is clear why the decision was taken to charge the protesters individually rather than together.
For charges of violent disorder, it is usual to consider the whole scenario first and then the individual act or acts in that context. Even the appeal court pointed out that while the CCTV footage submitted was good for indentifying individuals (except, of course, police officers), it gave little idea of the demonstrations as a whole. In spite of the absence of information necessary for such an overview, the judges at both the original trials and the appeal court made their decisions that people be locked away.
All except one of those convicted were intimidated into pleading guilty to the charge of violent disorder, despite the fact that the most any of them had done was to throw an empty plastic water bottle in the direction of the Israeli embassy gates.
With no connection to the organised anti-war movement, and no idea about their rights, these young people were harrassed by police, who assured them they had plenty of ‘evidence’ against them, and that things would go badly for them and their families if they tried to fight the charges. However, they were told, if they entered guilty pleas, they would be given lenient suspended sentences or community service.
The moment their guilty pleas were heard, however, the judge took the opportunity to hand down the most draconian sentences possible to young people whose only real crime was daring to protest against Israeli war crimes. The sentences were certainly exemplary, but not for the reasons given by the judges in either court.
Police and Israeli violence both ignored
The whole point is that police, prosecution service and courts were bent on making examples of these protestors. The judges said as much. But in the ‘double-think’ and ‘double-speak’ of bourgeois ‘justice’, they said that exemplary sentences were to deter others from attacking the police; that the police were only doing their duty and attacks on them could not be tolerated.
In real life, however, it was the police who attacked the demonstrators, and the demonstrators who were doing no more than the duty of honest, progressive people by protesting against the reactionary, brutal and criminal massacre of Palestinians by Israel. The publication of the Goldstone report has provided further proof, if such were needed, that the protestors had international law on their side. Those on the pickets know that it was the police who attacked; now some evidence of this has, embarrassingly for the authorities, reached the media, at least partly as the result of the appeals.
Young muslim men were chosen for prosecution, out of all proportion to the range of people on the demonstrations, in a blatant attempt to intimidate muslims on the one hand and encourage islamophobia on the other – peddling the myths that only muslims are opposed to Israel’s crimes (completely untrue), that protesting is equivalent to being a terrorist, and that this includes all muslims – and anyone not white for that matter. All this is a complete travesty of the truth.
Targeting a new generation of anti-imperialists
Moreover, it is clear that the police had another agenda. On top of wishing to drive a wedge between newly politicised, mostly Asian muslims and their predominantly white counterparts in the Palestine solidarity and anti-war movements, the hundreds of thousands of police hours spent in trawling through video footage from the demonstrations helped intelligence officers to pick out protestors who were young, new to the movement (most of those charged had never been to a demo before the Gaza massacre brought them out onto the streets of London) and who attended more than one of the protests. In other words, it seems that they were attempting to nip in the bud the development of a new generation of anti-imperialist activists and future leaders before they had a chance to develop.
Just to drive the point home, one of the few white people who were arrested and charged was Martin Askew. Brought up in a working-class community in the East End of London, he was pursuing a promising career as a film script writer and actor, and was widely held to be of exemplary character, including by the director Guy Ritchie, with whom he had recently worked.
Although white, and older than the others who were charged, Mr Askew is a muslim who converted to Islam some years ago, and was thus a perfect target for a state determined to portray solidarity with Palestine as synonymous with religious fanaticism. The fact that Martin is known by his friends to be a soft-spoken moderate rather than a proselytising fanatic was no barrier to the police and prosecution tarnishing his life and character in their quest to drive other British workers away from the cause.
Fabrication of evidence
Martin was charged with two counts of violent disorder (on 3 and 10 January 2009). He denied hurting anyone, or having any weapon in his possession at any time. Indeed, the only thing he threw on either occasion was a baby’s shoe at the gate of the Israeli embassy, symbolic of the lives of those babies and children being massacred by Israel’s bombers.
One police officer, on duty on 3 January 2009 as an evidence gatherer, gave evidence that Martin Askew threw two pieces of wood. He confirmed this in cross examination, but later the prosecution had to make a special statement that the officer did not record that Askew had thrown two sticks as he had said in evidence. The damage had been done, however, as far as the jury was concerned.
Another police officer, Sergeant Moxam, gave evidence against Martin, and admitted that he had jabbed Martin in the head with the edge of his riot shield. This broke his nose and he had to have 70 stitches. While admitting that hitting someone “as hard as you could” in the head would be likely to cause serious injury, PS Moxam said “I would do the same again if I had to in those set of circumstances.” (See court reports of 29 May 2010, gazademosupport.org.uk)
Despite the fact that this was one of the first times Martin had been on a demonstration, the police went to a great deal of trouble and expense to edit reams of footage into a professional and emotive little montage that portrayed him as a ‘ringleader’ and a ‘bad influence’. The Goebbelsian approach of the evidence concocters, combined with the popular prejudices against ‘muslim extremists’ that were reinforced in the minds of the jury, did its work in getting Martin convicted despite the obvious fabrication of the evidence against him and the severe nature of the injuries he sustained at the hands of his police attackers.
Martin Askew was sentenced to 18 months in prison on 28 May 2010.
To his credit, despite the possibly permanent blight on his career; despite being ostracised and branded as one of ‘Britain’s most wanted’ in tabloid papers like the Sun; despite being wrongly imprisoned and unable to see his two young children (a boy and a girl aged four and two, who have no way of understanding why their father has suddenly disappeared); and despite the injuries he received at the hands of British uniformed thugs, Martin told his friends that he has no regrets, saying that his sufferings were as nothing compared to those of the children of Gaza.
Meanwhile, Palestinians remain on the receiving end of daily brutality by Israel, and the people of Gaza are still living under the most draconian siege. They are not cowed, but are resisting resolutely. No-one is committing a crime by supporting this resistance and protesting against Israel’s war crimes and the connivance of British imperialism.
The Gaza protestors are not criminals, but political prisoners. We call on all progressive people to redouble their efforts to get all the protestors’ convictions overturned and to strengthen individual and organisational links between newly-politicised muslims and the Palestine solidarity and anti-war movements. We must not allow the state’s intimidation tactics to succeed!
Free the Gaza protesters; no to islamophobia!
Refuse to be intimidated; fight state terrorism!