On 1st March 2008, the Scotsman website hosted the following, supposedly commenting on remarks made by an Israeli Government Minister about rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza: "jews are not fit to breathe our air. They must be attacked wherever you see them; throw rocks at their ugly, hooked-nosed women and mentally ill children, and light up the REAL ovens."
We complained to the editor, who did not respond. We also reported this and other undisguised antisemitic comments on both Scotsman and Herald websites to the Press Complaints Commission which, however, dismissed the complaint on two grounds: firstly that the comments did not defame any individual, and secondly that they could not adjudicate on editorial discretion since none had been exercised! In addition we wrote to all MSPs and Ministers, many of whom also wrote to the editors to condemn their allowing the comments to appear. The First Minister and the then Lord Advocate both wrote to editors to remind them of their responsibility to monitor their websites. Speaking recently at a public meeting, the current Lord Advocate reiterated Crown Office's view that the media have a responsibility not be a conduit for hatred.
Meanwhile, the police were investigating the source of the above comment. Although he initially pled not guilty, he later changed his plea to guilty and his defence lawyer claimed in mitigation that his client was "a man with a great interest in world affairs and politics, and an ardent supporter of the Palestinian cause". When he added that Sandia had not done anything to incite violence, the Sheriff interrupted to ask whether his call for Jews to be attacked and stoned could be "suggestive of anything other than violence?"
When he first appeared for sentencing in November 2010, the Sheriff told him that "You clearly have hate in you, and I pity you for that. ... I am concerned to protect the public, and it is clear to me that a custodial sentence is appropriate." He said he did not, however, have the power to impose a significantly lengthy sentence, and that a light sentence "would only have the effect of turning you, in your own eyes, and in the eyes of your supporters, into a martyr. I choose not to do that." He therefore deferred sentence for a year, warning that "This does not mean you will escape custodial sentence, but that the possibility will be hanging over you for twelve months", and adding that the eventual sentence would depend on community reports about him which would be commissioned by the court.
When Sandia returned to court last month, an up-to-date background report had not been prepared, and sentence was again deferred until 9th December. On this occasion, the Sheriff said that although Sandia had "caused great hurt and damage to others" Sandia had been of good behaviour during the last year. Observing that Sandia had "paid by being subject to scrutiny", and further that he was unemployed and in poor health, and had already been put to the expense of travelling to Edinburgh to attend court on four occasions, the Sheriff admonished him. This is a warning which is a conviction and appears on the offender's criminal record.
Although the Sheriff decided against imposing a substantive penalty, we welcome his outspoken condemnation of Sandia's outrageous and abhorrent postings on theScotsman website as a clear signal that the law will not tolerate the abuse of freedom of speech to spread hatred.
We were appalled when the PCC refused to take any action in this case, and given the significant attention being paid to regulation of the media, we trust that this conviction will help prevent newspaper websites being used for the promotion of more racism and incitement in the future. It is worthy of note that Sandia was charged with publishing his comments at the newspaper's address in Edinburgh, despite the fact that he posted his comments from London and the offence they caused was in Glasgow. The Community Security Trust (CST) believes that this prosecution was unprecedented, and breaks new ground in establishing that the distributed nature of the internet does not offer protection from prosecution. For that reason, the case figures prominently in last week's report on Antisemitic Discourse from the CST which regards it as one of the worst examples of antisemitic hate-speech of the year.
Although Scotland is generally a comfortable place for Jews to live, the publication only the previous week of Government statistics that show that Jews are between 5 and 20 times more likely than others to the victims of racially aggravated crime has to give pause for reflection. Sadly, this case comes only a few months after a St Andrews student was convicted and expelled for a racist attack on a Jewish fellow-student. These cases give the lie to those who say it doesn't happen here, and Scotland should therefore be extremely proud of our police and prosecution authorities for taking decisive action against antisemitic comments on the internet and in the media.
We should never forget that the Holocaust did not begin with gas-chambers and death camps, but with name-calling, graffiti, boycotts, and degradation. Like the Nazis, their successors also might begin by attacking Jews or Muslims, but their hatred continually expands to new targets that they regard as "not fit to breathe our air". So soon after Remembrance Sunday, we should all remember what it was that those we honoured gave their lives for, and resolve to stand up against all these pedlars of hate.