Civil rights campaigners have welcomed last week’s decision by the appeal court to overturn the convictions of five young Muslims who were jailed under anti-terrorism laws simply for downloading material from the internet.
But the ruling triggered howls of outrage from right wing journalists and politicians.
“Has Britain become soft on terror?” squealed the Sunday Times last week, as it showered praise on a ludicrous “report” claiming that multiculturalism was encouraging terrorists.
Irfan Raja, Awaab Iqbal, Aitzaz Zafar, Usman Malik and Akbar Butt were convicted in July last year under section 57 of the Terrorism Act 2000.
This makes it illegal to possess “articles” in circumstances that “give rise to a reasonable suspicion” that the articles in question are connected with terrorist plans.
Each received a jail sentence of between two and three years. But on Thursday of last week the appeal court quashed the convictions and ordered their release.
The appeal judges ruled that merely possessing “extremist material” was not illegal, and that the prosecution needed to show the material was intended to “incite the commission of terrorist acts”.
Civil rights lawyer Imran Khan, who represented one of the men, welcomed the decision.
“My client cannot see why he has spent the past two years in prison for looking at material which he had no intention of using for terrorism,” he said.
“We must not criminalise people for simply looking at material.”
The verdict may also help the case of Mohammed Atif Siddique, the Scottish student convicted and jailed last September under the Terrorism Act 2006 for downloading material from the internet.
Atif’s lawyer Aamer Anwar faces a contempt of court hearing in April for a press statement he made in the wake of that conviction. He said Atif had been “found guilty of doing what millions do every day – looking for answers on the internet”.
The appeal court’s decision reflects deep splits within the British establishment over the “war on terror”.
Pro-war forces are desperate to paint Muslims as the “enemy within” in order to justify the war and create a scapegoat for popular anger.
That is why the government is so keen on ramming through draconian “anti-terrorism” laws.
It is running into opposition from sections of the judiciary who worry that attacks on civil liberties could end up discrediting the law in the eyes of the public.
One example of the increasing attacks on Muslims came last week in a report published by the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), a military “think tank” that claims expertise in “homeland security and resilience”.
The report claimed that Britain had become a “soft touch” for terrorists because of “misplaced deference to multiculturalism”.
It complains that there has been a “loss of confidence in our own identity, values, constitution and institutions”.
Most mainstream commentators have distanced themselves from the more extreme conclusions of the Rusi report.
But the fact that the right is now openly slating Britain’s multicultural society in the name of the “war on terror” shows how far the stakes have risen.