Can you imagine police conducting dawn raids on houses in London, handcuffing everybody and preventing women from putting on their clothes as they seek to arrest teenagers who took part in anti-Israel demonstrations? Is it right to ruin the life of a young person from a decent family with a promising future as a professional by imposing a severe prison sentence for the ‘crime' of expressing anger once in a way that hurt nobody, just to make an example of him, thus deterring others from expressing themselves? This is what happened to several British students who took part in Gaza demonstrations more than a year ago. Already 22 have been sentenced and 56 more are awaiting sentencing in a west London court, mainly because they are Muslims of Arab origin.
The British daily The Guardian published an extremely disturbing two-page report on March 13. The accounts of those concerned are really horrific and, if true, they reveal racism that can't be justified. It seems a sizeable chunk of British society has been singled out and persecuted, undermining the basic values of freedom Britons cherish.
The Israeli genocide against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip in 2008-09 led to protests everywhere. In London, some 50,000 marched in front of the Israeli embassy calling for an end to the onslaught. The demonstration was heavily policed and was largely peaceful — certainly far more so than the G20 demonstrations. But this one was against Israel, so security was heightened and policing was unnecessarily aggressive. Although many Christians, Jews and even Israelis opposed to Zionism took part, Arab Muslims were targeted by police and later the whole law enforcement system.
Jailed for throwing a bottle
A son of a doctor from Iraq, 20-year-old Mosab Khalil Al Ani was given a year in prison for throwing an empty Orangina bottle — the police said it was directed at them, Al Ani said it was thrown at the Israeli embassy's gates. According to The Guardian, in sentencing Al Ani Judge John Denniss said: "I know you came here peacefully, I know you have an excellent character, I know you were not armed, you said sorry to the police … I'm going to give you this sentence to deter other people." So, young British Muslims who protest against Israel are liable to face public disorder charges and go to prison. What does Britain expect of them?
The message has already been sent, and Britain is alienating its Muslim citizens — by applying the law as harshly as possible — in a way that is not that different from other European countries accused of Islamophobia, such as France, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Italy. Moreover, every Muslim of Arab origin who criticises Israel can expect the horrible experience described by The Guardian, mirroring the situation in the worst dictatorships in the world. One family member told the newspaper that the dawn raid was even worse than what was to be expected in his home country of Algeria.
The account is graphic: "The front door was forced open, and then came the screaming. ‘Wah, wah, wah, get down, get down, you are under arrest'. He thought it was a nightmare — that he was back in Algeria in the bad old days before he was granted political asylum in Britain, and that the military had broken into the house. When he opened his eyes, his bedroom was full of police officers. ‘I have diabetes and high blood pressure,' he says quietly. ‘It was worse than Algeria, even. I became very depressed.' It was 5am, April 2009…. ‘I woke up and tried to get out of bed. The next thing is three police officers jump on top of me with their knees, and they handcuffed me so hard I screamed. That's when I really woke up' ... When he asked if he could put a shirt on the police said no and opened the window. ‘It was freezing. I was shaking' ..."
The newspaper report carried similar accounts from different families. You would hardly believe this is Britain. A couple of days later the paper published some readers' comments on the report — almost all deploring what happened. But the problem is still there, and more sentencing is to come. What would I tell my young son if he wanted to take part in a peaceful demonstration in London? I'm afraid I'd have to warn him that the outcome could be worse than in Zimbabwe.
Dr Ahmad Mustafa is a London-based Arab writer.