“We are very angry, very afraid, very sad, very upset. My wife, she is depressed. When she sees police in the street she’s very frightened. They destroyed our life,” says Badi Tebani.
In January 2009, Tebani’s teenage son Yahia was one of tens of thousands of people who joined demonstrations in London against the Israeli bombing of Gaza. At one of those demonstrations Yahia and many others were “kettled” — surrounded by a police cordon and slowly let out in return for giving their names and addresses and for being filmed.
That was the last Yahia knew of it until the following April, when the family home was raided by 20 to 30 police at 5am. The front door was forced open and Badi Tebani and his family were ordered to lie on the floor. His four sons were all handcuffed. Three police officers knelt on the back of Hamza, 23. He was sleeping in shorts, but they refused to let him put on any clothes, even though they’d opened the windows, letting in the cold. Computers, mobile phones and clothes were all taken and the family car was broken into. Badi and Hamza described how police played games on the boys’ iPhones and made themselves coffee in the kitchen.
According to Badi, it was worse than anything he experienced back in Algeria. Badi is an Algerian who came to the UK seeking political asylum from the violence between the government and military and the political opposition which left 200,000 dead during the 1990s. He has taught here ever since.
The entire family was shocked when they discovered that it was Yahia the police were after. “He is a student at university, he has never has been in prison or in trouble with the police,” says Badi Tebani. “He’s always had a good character, good behavior.”
Yahia was later charged with violent disorder, an offense which carries a jail term of up to five years. He says that during the demonstration he took a chair from a nearby Starbucks to sit on, but police alleged that the cafe was trashed and the furniture used as weapons. Yahia was advised that if he pleaded guilty to the charge he would get community service, so he followed his lawyer’s advice. He didn’t know that most of the protesters who did the same were being sent straight to jail, so he was shocked when a friend was handed a two-year sentence. Yahia is now serving a one-year prison term.
“It’s a very big shock,” says Badi Tebani. “I visited Yahia during the week. He is the kind of person where you don’t know what he is thinking, but I know he is very, very sad, very upset. He will lose a year at university. His friend was sentenced to two years, he just took a stick in his hand for a few minutes, he didn’t throw it, he didn’t do anything. Another, he was sentenced to a year just because he went on the demonstration — he’s 16, he’s at college doing his A levels. They all fear the future because with a criminal record, it’s difficult to find a job.”
“They can’t say our boys are criminals,” continues Tebani. “They demonstrated to support people in Gaza. All the world knows what happened there, how many people were killed, how many houses destroyed. I think the real criminal is Israel. If any judge in the world needs to judge anyone, he needs to judge those responsible in Israel. People tried to help, to stop the catastrophe in Gaza, to ask the British government to stop the war. But the government sends them to jail.”
According to figures collated by Joanna Gilmore of Manchester University, Yahia Tebani is one of 119 individuals arrested at or after the demonstrations. The youngest person arrested was 12, although the average age was 18 or 19. Almost all of the demonstrators charged with violent disorder were Muslim, despite the mixed nature of the protests, which were supported by majority-white organizations like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament as well as by Islamic groups.
At least 22 persons have been given custodial sentences, with terms of up to 30 months. Most of these have come from Judge Denniss at Isleworth Crown Court in West London, who has made it clear that he is imposing “deterrent” sentences. A 15-year-old boy was given a non-custodial sentence which involves a curfew and an electronic tag, while a Palestinian who only days earlier had seen images in the newspapers of dead relatives in Gaza was given a two-year jail term.
According to Gilmore, the number of arrests and sentences resulting from the Gaza protests are far greater than those from much larger and more violent anti-war and anti-capitalist demonstrations which have taken place in London.
Lawyer Matt Foot, who is acting for several of the protesters, agrees. “The dawn raids were an extreme measure,” he says. “It’s the first time I’ve come across it on a large scale in recent times for this kind of offense. It was used in the 1980s for the miners’ strike, and in smaller numbers for an anti-Bush demonstration.”
Foot also says he believes that too many people were arrested in the first place, and then that demonstrators were “over-charged” in relation to their actual actions. “At the anti-Bush demonstration, very few people got convicted of violent disorder and if they did they got non-custodial sentences, the judge certainly didn’t talk about deterrent sentences then.” He acknowledges that Islamophobia could have played a part in the decision to arrest and charge so many people with such serious offenses.
“That’s one of the differences with the anti-Bush protests,” Foot adds. “Very few white people were charged in the end. It’s not necessarily the judge’s fault — I think they were over-charged, too many people were charged and I think the courts have then seen 60 people coming through on violent disorder and reacted in a certain way. I think the mischief comes from too many people being arrested and then being over-charged.”
Joanna Berridge of the Gaza Demonstrators Support Campaign fears that the British authorities are using the Gaza protests as an “easy target” to suppress political demonstrations more widely, playing on widespread Islamophobia to set legal precedents which can then be used against other protesters. “It’s first about political policing of protest, with the Islamophobia feeding into it,” she claims.
Foot also points to a lack of coordination between the different cases as having resulted in badly-advised guilty pleas. According to Joanna Berridge, the Islamic Human Rights Commission and a few individual activists distributed information on lawyers and protesters’ legal rights at the demonstrations, but it seems that many of the organizations who called for the protests didn’t follow suit. This, coupled with the fact that many of the arrests happened up to eight months after the protests, meant that many defendants have ended up with duty solicitors from their local police stations, rather than lawyers with specialized knowledge of defending protesters.
“In comparison with the G20 protests, the demographic of the protesters is very different,” says Berridge. “People from movements like Climate Camp knew how to protect themselves, whereas for a lot of the guys on the Gaza demos, it was a spontaneous thing. It was the first march many of them had been on, so they didn’t know their rights. The deterrent sentences have mainly been handed out to people who pleaded guilty, while the majority of those with more legal know-how, who have been involved in protests before, have had their cases thrown out before they even got to court, or been found not guilty.”
The Gaza Demonstrators Support Campaign has responded to the need for better legal knowledge amongst Palestine solidarity campaigners by organizing legal observer trainings. They are also offering practical support, such as translation and refreshments, to the defendants and their families at court, and fundraising for families who have lost breadwinners to jail terms.
A second campaign, run by the Stop The War Coalition, has collected more than 1,500 signatures on a petition against the sentences. Jeremy Corbyn, Labor MP for Islington North, called some of the sentences “extraordinary and out of all proportion to the crimes committed.” The campaign also tabled a parliamentary question on the policing of the protests, which also attracted 55 complaints to the Metropolitan Police and the Independent Police Complaints Commission. A number of these were dropped because the ID numbers on officers’ uniforms had been covered up.
As Matt Foot puts it, “The judges hand down these deterrent sentences and it’s about real people’s lives. They say, ‘these are people of good character’ and then start locking up young people who just care about what’s happening in Palestine, the whole thing becomes hideous.”
“I think the result of these cases on a larger scale will impact heavily on future rights to protest,” emphasizes Joanna Berridge. “It’s really important that these boys don’t get used as an example, because this will stay on their record for years. They were protesting about something as widely recognized as war crimes against Gaza. That’s not been taken into account but it should really be focused on, that these brave and conscious young people were going out and taking a stand and are having their lives ruined as a result.”
Sarah Irving is a freelance writer from Manchester, UK. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She now writes full-time on a range of issues, including Palestine, “http://www.sarahirving.net,” Her first book, Gaza: Beneath the Bombs, co-authored with Sharyn Lock, was published in January 2010.