Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Defence against what?

I have received an email asking me to sign an open letter to “defend Aamer Anwar” (that is, against the contempt of court allegations against him: see this earlier post). The email comes from the Glasgow Stop The War Coalition, and the letter – first published, it appears, on the 8th November 2007 in the Herald – is available here on the Scotland Against Criminalising Communities website. The email also links to a commentary in The Firm magazine, which is critical of the contempt proceedings against Mr Anwar.

What is interesting is the synopsis of the allegations against Mr Anwar made by the authors of that letter, and also the presentation of those allegations by The Firm magazine. The open letter states as follows:

“Following sentencing on the 23rd October, Aamer Anwar was ordered to appear at a court hearing before the Judge. He was accused of showing disrespect to the Judge, the Jury and the Court.”

The Firm chooses not to provide a synopsis of the allegations, but instead quotes directly from Lord Carloway’s note regarding Mr Anwar. The Firm’s quote looks like a summary by Lord Carloway of the allegations against Mr Anwar, but omits several of the allegations. For whatever reason, The Firm has chosen not to use ellipses (that is “…”) to indicate gaps in the quote: instead, it is presented as a single block of text. The quote is a total of 161 words, drawn from a section of Lord Carloway’s note totalling 2,162 words. A reader of The Firm would understand the allegations against Mr Anwar to be as follows:

“The statement seems to be an attack on the fairness of the trial and thus presumably an attack on the Court itself.
The essence of the problem here is that the remarks do not emanate from a former litigant or accused person or even a third party commentator. Rather they come from the agent instructed in the case.
It also seemed to be a criticism of the Court as not being an independent and objective forum for the determination of criminal charges but part of a system of unfairness and repression. Finally it seemed to be an attack on the terrorist laws themselves.”

There are a number of omissions here, but what is particularly intriguing is that neither the open letter nor The Firm’s extract note the very first concern expressed by Lord Carloway, which was that the statements made by Mr Anwar:

“…appeared, at least in part, to be: (a) untrue; and (b) misleading. For example, the opening sentence of the statement [“Mohammed Atif Siddique was found guilty of doing what millions of young people do every day, looking for answers on the internet”], which received widespread media coverage, was not true. The panel had been convicted of specific statutory offences, which did not involve looking for answers on the internet. They involved downloading, concealing and retaining material for the purposes of terrorism and creating websites for the distribution of other material intended for the same purpose. …”

This is a far more serious allegation than “disrespect”, and probably more serious than anything quoted by The Firm.

Does that mean contempt proceedings against Mr Anwar are justified? The answer is no. Courts have a power to punish contempts in order to protect the integrity of their proceedings and prevent defiance of their orders, and it is impossible to see how either of these points could be said to be in issue as a result of Mr Anwar’s public statements. As I said in this earlier post, treating such statements as contempt of court could have a dangerously chilling effect on freedom of speech. But at the same time, it is wrong to claim that Mr Anwar is being hauled before the High Court for mere “disrespect”. I would happily sign a letter defending Aamer Anwar – but only one defending him against the actual allegations made against him.

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