In March 2008 the Scotsman website published a large number of virulently antisemitic comments, purporting to comment on an article about the situation in Gaza. These included a comment by “Binny” that “jews are not fit to breathe our air. They must be attacked wherever you see them; throw rocks at their ugly, hooked nose women and mentally ill children, light up the REAL ovens.” (sic)
SCoJeC reported these, and also similar comments on the Herald website, to both the police and the Press Complaints Commission. The PCC rejected the complaints on the bizarre grounds that since no editorial discretion had been exercised, they could not adjudicate on the exercise of editorial discretion! We then wrote to all MSPs, more than half of whom responded to us to express their support, and many also wrote to the editors to condemn their allowing the comments to appear. The First Minister and Lord Advocate both wrote to editors to remind them of their responsibility to monitor their websites. (See Four Corners 17 for more background information.)
The police investigated the comments, and were able to identify the perpetrator as Mohammed Sandia, who lives in London. In October this year, he pled guilty to a charge under the Public Order Act 1986 of “publish[ing] written material which was threatening abusive or insulting … whereby having regard for all the circumstances racial hatred was likely to be stirred up.” The charge also stated that this conduct was both aggravated by religious prejudice, and was racially aggravated.
A spokesman for Crown Office said, "There is no place in Scotland for those who commit crimes motivated by prejudice and intolerance. The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal take offences of this kind seriously and will continue to work closely with other criminal justice agencies to ensure that offenders are brought to justice.”
The case returned to court on 10 November, when Sandia’s defence lawyer claimed that his client was “a man with a great interest in world affairs and politics, and an ardent supporter of the Palestinian cause, as many people are today”, and that he was “disgusted” by the situation in Gaza. He contended, however, that Sandia had not done anything to incite violence. The Sheriff did not, however, accept this mitigation, and asked whether Sandia’s call for Jews to be attacked and stoned could be “suggestive of anything other than violence?”
“You clearly have hate in you,” he told Sandia, “and I pity you for that. … I am concerned to protect the public, and it is clear to me that a custodial sentence is appropriate.” The Sheriff regretted that he did not, however, have the power to impose a significantly lengthy custodial sentence, and that a light sentence “would only have the effect of turning you, in your own eyes, and in the eyes of your supporters, into a martyr. I choose not to do that.” He therefore deferred sentence for a year, warning that “This does not mean you will escape custodial sentence, but that the possibility will be hanging over you for twelve months”, and adding that the eventual sentence would depend on Sandia’s good behaviour, and on community reports about him which would be commissioned by the court.
It is noteworthy that Sandia was charged with publishing his comments at the newspaper's address in Edinburgh, despite the fact that he posted his comments from London and the offence they caused was reported in Glasgow. The Community Security Trust believes that this prosecution was unprecedented, and breaks new ground in establishing that the distributed nature of the internet does not offer protection from prosecution.
Morag McLaughlin, Area Procurator Fiscal for Lothian and Borders commented that “Prejudice and hatred which finds expression in criminal behaviour has no place in Scotland. As prosecutors we take a tough stance on hate crime because we see the pain and suffering it brings to individuals and the corrosive effect it has on communities. We have met representatives of the Jewish community and look forward to ongoing dialogue with them and with all groups affected by hate crime, to ensure that prosecution policy is informed by an understanding of diverse communities, the challenges they face and the impact of hate crime.”
SCoJeC welcomes the Sheriff's unequivocal condemnation of Sandia's comments, which he described as "disgusting and repulsive", and his recognition of the need to protect the public from Sandia’s activities. We commend the clear message that this sends, that the law will not tolerate the abuse of freedom of speech to spread hatred, as well as the determination of the Police and Crown Office to pursue the case to its conclusion. We trust that this ground-breaking prosecution helps prevent newspaper websites being used for the promotion of racism and incitement in the future.