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18 Aug, 2011 06:30

Draconian sentences for UK rioters as courts fight fire with fire

British courts are coming down hard on the rioters who spread mayhem last week, but human rights groups say the severe penalties being handed down are an over-reaction and a cynical attempt to curry popularity.

Two men were jailed for four years each for trying to incite street violence through Facebook. Prime Minister David Cameron defended the sentences handed down to Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, saying they sent out a much-needed “tough message”.Although no-one responded to their online invitation to riot, which they later said was just a drunken joke, they now face sentences even tougher than many looters. Andrew Nielson, Associate Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, says, “Our worry is that it is an imbalance. A four-year sentence for example would normally be given to somebody for grievous bodily harm, for holding someone up with a knife, or even for some forms of sexual assault. So it seems to me that there is a danger that the courts are moving into disproportionate territory, and that actually devalues our response to more serious crimes.”The government has the encouraged courts to dish out harsh sentences, citing public disturbance as an aggravating factor.It has meant, for example, that Anderson Fernandes, who is in custody after being caught stealing just two scoops of ice cream, could receive a prison term. The British courts are now denying bail to most offenders and ignoring all statements of previous good character. Of the 1277 people charged so far, two-thirds have been remanded in custody.  That is way up from last year’s rate for serious crimes, which was just 10 per cent.Some offenders and their families are even being made homeless as their punishment, with local governments taking away their houses, but many say this will simply cause more harm than good.“I think this is very unwise, the move to remove people from housing and to remove benefits,” Andrew Nielson says, “because actually, if we are saying that some of the crime that we saw on the streets was an expression of people not feeling part of society, not feeling part of our communities, then these measures are actually going to push these people further away from society, further away from our communities, and far more likely to commit crime.”The Facebook case is the first sign of the government’s desire to crack down on social media. Websites like Twitter were applauded by the West for mobilizing the masses in the Arab world. But they were also instrumental in the UK riots, so now the prime minister wants it to stop.“We are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality,” declared David Cameron.When social media fuelled revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, Britain called it democracy. But now the shoe is on the other foot when trouble is closer to home, The Labour MP for Birmingham Selly Oak Steve McCabe says “I’m very conscious that it has been used in other areas to support what are seen as democratic movements and we’d be the first to complain if we thought the authorities in those countries were trying to block access to it.”The Prime Minister says this is where Britain fights back. But it is feared that could just mean fighting fire with fire – and that would only fan the flames of civil disorder.