Britain Moves to Ban Islamic Group


Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Published: January 12, 2010

LONDON — Britain said Tuesday it was outlawing a radical Islamic group that had incited outrage by planning a protest march through the streets of a town made famous for its somber ceremonies honoring British soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

Alan Johnson, the British home secretary, said the move criminalizing membership in the banned group, Islam4UK, was a “tough but necessary power to tackle terrorism.” The ban, which takes effect Thursday, also outlawed other names used by the organization.

Last week, the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, said he was “personally appalled” by the group’s plans to march through Wootton Bassett, a town 70 miles west of London where residents have lined the streets for more than two years to pay respects to the passing hearses carrying the coffins of British soldiers flown home to a nearby military base.

Islam4UK decried Britain’s action in a statement posted to its Web site on Tuesday, saying that the prohibition of the group was “a clear case of the oppressor and tyrant blaming the oppressed.” On Sunday, the group scrapped plans for the march, which had sought to highlight what it called the “atrocities” committed by British troops in Afghanistan.

The organization has described itself as a platform for promoting the views of an extremist Islamic group, Al Muhajiroun, which praised the hijackers of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States as heroes, but disbanded in 2005 in response to a British government order banning it. Islam4UK says it has never advocated or been involved with violence.

The ban was announced one day after a court found five British Muslim men guilty of harassment and using insulting language during a protest they had staged at a separate parade welcoming British troops home from Afghanistan. The men had shouted slogans describing the soldiers as “murderers,” “rapists” and “baby killers.”

The highly unusual trial, in a district court in Luton, a town with a large Muslim population 30 miles north of London, was seen by the defendants’ supporters as a rare test of Britain’s liberal free speech laws. Lawyers for the men argued during testimony last week that they had been justified in the words they displayed on placards and shouted at the soldiers because they were speaking “the truth.”

But the district judge, Carolyn Mellanby, found five of the seven defendants guilty of offenses under Britain’s public order laws, specifically of using “threatening, abusive or insulting words” and of “behavior likely to cause harassment and distress.” The men were ordered to pay court costs of $800 each and given two-year conditional discharges, meaning that they would face additional penalties only if they were found guilty of similar offenses within 24 months.

The men convicted, all from Luton, were Munim Abdul, 28; Jalal Ahmed, 21; Yousaf Bashir, 29: Sajjadar Choudhury, 31; and Zaiur Rahman, 32.

The two other defendants were acquitted.

The convicted men — who had refused to stand for the judge in court, saying Islam forbade showing respect to anybody but the Prophet Muhammad — were unrepentant after the verdicts. Outside the court they waved a placard: “Islam will dominate! Freedom can go to hell.”

The protest last March aroused strong feelings across Britain. The defendants were shown on national newscasts surrounded by a phalanx of police officers as they shouted epithets at soldiers of the Royal Anglian Regiment, who were parading through the Luton town center. Some town residents who crowded the sidewalks to cheer the soldiers were angered by the protest, and they sought unsuccessfully to reach the protesters through the cordon of officers.

While opinion in Britain has been sharply divided over the country’s role in Afghanistan, where British troops constitute the largest contingent after American forces, the troops deployed have won widespread support.

Judge Mellanby said in her ruling: “I have no doubt it is abusive and insulting to tell soldiers to ‘Go to hell’ — to call soldiers murderers, rapists and baby killers. It is not just insulting to the soldiers but to the citizens of Luton who were out on the streets that day to honor and welcome soldiers home. Citizens of Luton are entitled to demonstrate their support for the troops without experiencing insults and abuse.”

She added, speaking of the defendants, “The fact that they did not intend their remarks to be insulting does not amount to a defense in law. They were fully aware that shocking phrases in such circumstances would inevitably cause distress.”

One of the defendants’ lawyers, Sonal Dashani, said, “If you believe in freedom of speech, you have to accept that some things will be said that you like, and some things will be said that you do not like.”

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