When political protesters are arrested by "oppressive regimes" around the world, human rights organisations are the first to rally the call for justice. In practically every issue of Amnesty International's magazine, for instance, there is a call for the "immediate and unconditional release" of protesters and "prisoners of conscience" who take part in a political demonstrations or public rallies. It is common to see headings such as: Iran: Excessive use of force against protesters condemned or Honduras: Amnesty reveals photographic evidence of brutal police violence against peaceful protesters. A discriminatory and disproportionate crack-down, whether by the police or the courts, against peaceful protesters who are drawing attention to something that their own, or another, government has done wrong is a fundamental breach of human rights. Whether the issue is looked at in terms of the right to assemble, the right to freedom of speech, or any other right, the right to peacefully protest is a human right worth defending. However, there seems to be a different set of criteria when these brutal arrests, or unjust detentions take place in our own country, and especially when the targets are Muslim individuals.
Since the news came to light in the last few weeks about the disproportionately harsh sentencing of the young men and women who took part in the protests in London against the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2008-2009, many people have voiced their shock and concern for those individuals who seem to have been unjustly targeted by the authorities and overzealously persecuted by the courts in order to "set an example" and "send a message" to those in the wider community. However, the groups who you would expect to be at the forefront of the campaign for justice, namely human rights organisations, seem instead to have adopted a stony silence on the issue and in most cases claim to be completely unaware of the situation.
When people today hear the reports of police brutality against the protesters back in December 2009 – January 2010, in which many claim to have been manhandled and beaten by the police; or when they hear about how many protesters, including old people and young children were corralled and trapped for hours by the riot police who used illegal "kettling" techniques; or about the unnecessary and over-the-top dawn raids which took place months after the protests in which 20-30 police officers would burst into a family home at five o'clock in the morning, traumatising families, in order to arrest a teenager for throwing a few random items; or the fact that the presiding judge hearing the protest cases specifically said that he was passing harsh sentences in order to "deter" future repetitions of the protest events, the standard reaction is one of shock that this would happen in London, quickly followed by the question, well what is being done about it? And that is a good question. Anyone who has been following the cases can see that the protesters have been dealt with in an unfair and discriminatory way and yet what is being done about it? This may be asked particularly in reference to the human right organisations whose specific mandate it is to draw attention to such human rights violations.
In terms of press coverage, the Guardian in particular has been exceptionally noteworthy in its reporting of the protests and the subsequent sentences passed, and it has been the only newspaper in the UK to take up the coverage of the cases in any meaningful way. In his article "This tide of anti-Muslim hatred is a threat to us all" (25th February) Seumas Milne looked at the draconian sentences passed in the wider context of the "alarming growth of British Islamophobia and the rising tide of anti-Muslim violence and hate crimes that stem from it." Simon Hattenstone and Matthew Taylor also wrote an excellent piece in the Guardian entitled "Sent to jail for throwing a single bottle" (13th March) in which they focused on one particularly stark case of police overzealousness in the dawn raid and arrest of one 18 year old male for throwing a few objects during a protest in a crowd 50,000 strong, months after the event had taken place. A few other papers have also drawn attention to the issue recently including a recent article in the Independent (8th March) by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.
Even the wider public has started to voice their outrage and concern. In the Guardian this morning, (15th March) for instance, the "Reply" section published six letters each expressing the single opinion that "Savage sentences on Muslim demonstrators will be counter productive".
In contrast to this, the one elemental group that has remained conspicuous in its silence has been the human rights organisations themselves.
Human Rights Organisations
MEMO contacted a few prominent Human Rights organisations this morning in an attempt to illicit some sort of response from them as to their position on the cases. However, their responses were not encouraging.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)
On their website the EHRC claim that "our job is to promote equality and human rights, and to create a fairer Britain." From that short description you would think that this would be exactly the sort of case that they should be interested in. The fact that a small section of the British community is being targeted and punished in a disproportionate and discriminatory manner should be exactly the kind of thing they should be investigating.
However, this morning MEMO contacted the EHRC who said that they "cannot comment" on the cases because they have not launched an investigation into these particular cases and there has been "no work done on it". It seems fair to ask however, why they have not looked into these cases? After all, according to an article in today's Guardian newspaperi the "EHRC employs more than 500 members of staff at an annual cost of £70m." If they are not taking the initiative to investigate a large cluster of cases in which it has been widely argued that dozens of young British citizens have been unfairly targeted by the police and the British judicial system, then what are they spending their money on? This omission in itself would seem to support the criticism highlighted in an article in today's Guardian which stated that the EHRC is "not doing enough", and it does indeed seem to be the case that there is a "reticence to voice concerns over key human rights abuses, such as the policing of last year's G20 protests" and by extension, it can be argued, the policing of the London-Gaza protests as well.
Human Rights Watch
MEMO was also in touch with the London Co-ordinator of Human Rights Watch this morning who gave us the following statement from Benjamin Ward, the Deputy Director, of Europe and Central Asia, Human Rights Watch who wrote: "We have not followed these cases and cannot therefore comment on the individual allegations of discrimination or abuse. Allegations of police abuse can be referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission for investigation. Judges have discretion in relation to sentencing, subject to guidelines. Under the sentencing guidelines, deterrence is a relevant factor in cases of public order offences involving violence. Sentences can be appealed, particularly where they fall outside the sentencing guidelines."
While we appreciate HRW giving us a response to our enquiry, it is a shame however, that they have not been following these cases, otherwise they would know that 33 complaints regarding the allegations of police abuse have already been referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission and they did not deal with any of the complaints. Instead they referred all 33 complaints back to the Metropolitan Police (MET) to investigate themselves. Not surprisingly the MET Police also dismissed the complaints, and this in itself is one of the grounds of complaint that the protesters and their supporters are making.
Second, although deterrence may indeed by "a relevant factor" in judicial sentencing, it surely cannot be the only factor! Surely there must first be reasonable grounds on which to pass a sentence based on individual culpability and then, and only then, when all of the facts surrounding the case have been adequately scrutinised should the additional element of general deterrence be a factor for consideration. Deterrence is by no means enough in itself to warrant the issuing of a lengthy custodial sentence. This sort of draconian measure would surely be unacceptable in even the most brutal of regimes, let alone in an advanced, democratic country such as ours.
Lastly, although appeals may indeed be taken up at this point by the individual families, (and they may very well chose to do so at this point – many with the help of lawyer Imran Khan who has publicly offered his services and is now taking up a lead role in the legal aspects of these case), surely that is not the first response a human rights organisation should take when there has been a miscarriage of justice. Is it fair to leave it to the victim to take up their own case unaided? Many of these young men are just teenagers and students, and in the same way that their cases and appeals would be championed by human rights organisations if these events were unfolding in some despotic, third-world regime abroad, surely they deserve just as much help if they live in London.
MEMO also contacted Amnesty International asking them to clarify their position on the issue. A Press Officer in the London office replied that "I'm not aware of it" and that they were therefore probably not covering it.
We were also in touch with Liberty who one would assume would have an interest in this case considering that their mandate is that "Liberty seeks to protect civil liberties and promote human rights for everyone." However, after leaving several messages no-one got back to us.
The Islamic Human Right Commission
The one exception to this sad lack of interest seems to be the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC). They have been following these cases from the start and have produced an extensive 94 page report into the protests with photographs, eyewitness accounts and a series of recommendations it made to the police service as to future ways to prevent a recurrence of such events.
Who else is taking up the cause?
Why have the vast majority of human rights organisations been so indifferent and slow to pick up on these cases when support has been pouring in from so many other sectors of the community? Individual MPs such as Jeremy Corbyn, for example, have tried to mobilise support for the protesters in various ways. On Tuesday 2nd March, for instance, Mr Corbyn chaired a public meeting in the Houses of Parliament, which MEMO also attended, in which several family members of those sentenced, as well as lots of supporters, all agreed on several action points including the drawing up of a petition which demands:
"The release of all those imprisoned; That all further charges are dropped; An independent investigation into the many complaints about police behavior at the demonstrations which have all the been rejected by the IPCC; An end to the intimidation of the Muslim community; The right to protest for all."
The plan is to present this petition to the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, and the Director of Public Prosecution. The issue will also be raised in Parliament. These initiatives are also being supported by the British Muslim Initiative (BMI), the Stop the War Coalition, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).
It would be a huge step in the right direction if some of the more mainstream human rights organisations mentioned above would also take up the mantle and join in with these groups in spreading this call.
The shocking irony is that the protesters were standing up for the human rights of the Palestinian people and now it is their human rights that are being violated. In terms of the remit of this case and how it falls under the realms of interest for human rights groups, there are several grounds on which human rights have been violated and which you would expect to be of great interest for human rights organisations, including the religious targeting of Muslim individuals, and the perceived attempt of the authorities to stifle the public's freedom of speech and expression. So why are they not covering it? Is it because the protesters are Muslim? Surely not, it would not be much of a human rights organisation if it discriminated on grounds of religion. Is it because it is too politically contentious to support those who were openly opposing Israel? Again, it seems hard to believe that a human rights organisation would let itself be compromised in this way, but it's hard to know what other conclusions to draw since they are not proffering their own explanations. Perhaps we should give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, most of the groups contacted today seemed to say that they were simply not aware of these cases. Well, now it has been brought to their attention, let's see if this makes any difference.
As a final point, and it should really go without saying, no violence is acceptable in any protest and all protests should take place in an atmosphere of safety and security, both on the side of the protesters and on the side of those policing the protests. If members of the British Muslim community did engage in any illegal activities it is in no way being suggested that they should be excluded from the remit of the law. However, it is simply being argued that they should be treated in the same way that any other protester would be treated and not targeted in any way because of their religion. Furthermore, the entire context should be looked at, including allegations of police brutality, and their acts should not be looked at in isolated snapshots without being set in a wider context. Furthermore, out of 50,000 protesters in one event, and other similarly large numbers at other London based protests, it seems beyond the realms of probability that all but two of the individuals deserving of arrest should be Muslim. An effort must be exerted on all sides to ensure that future protests can take place in an atmosphere of security and tolerance and that there will be no need for the intervention of human rights organisations to monitor these events. Until that time however, we must urge our human rights organisations to take more of an active interest in the policing and judicial treatment of such events.
For more background on these cases see:
Dr Hanan Chehata:
Harsh sentences seem more likely to deter lawful protest rather than violent disorder
Gaza protesters to be sentenced despite allegations of police brutality.
How young Muslims are paying the price for their protests against the Israeli atrocities in the Gaza conflict
Seamus Milne: The tide of anti-Muslim hatred is a threat to us all
Simon Hattenstone & Matthew Taylor: Where is the outrage about the Gaza protest sentences?
Sian Ruddock: Jailed for protesting against Israel's attack on Gaza
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Stealing Muslim human and civil rights
Dr. Jonathan Githens-Mazer and Dr. Robert Lambert: Sentencing of protesters against war in Gaza: Community concerns should not be ignored
iPolly Curtis, Equality Chief censured in cross-party report, p7
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.