Gay Free Zone conviction is disturbing

Why did a few anti-gay stickers in East London provoke an outcry by gay groups, while far worse homo

The negligible media coverage of Mohammed Hasnath's conviction is rather surprising. His case has since prompted explosive claims of judicial
homophobia, the criminalisation of free speech and the failure of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities to challenge Islamist homophobia.

Hasnath, aged 18, was found guilty of posting homophobic stickers in London's East End. The stickers declared the area a "Gay Free Zone" and
advised: "Arise and warn...And fear Allah: Verily Allah is severe in punishment."

These stickers were wrong and clearly motivated by homophobic prejudice. Such prejudice - indeed all prejudice - needs to be challenged.

Disturbingly, it appears that Hasnath has fundamentalist sympathies. On his Facebook page he lists Sheikh Khalid Yasin as one of his interests:

Yasin is on record as abusing "homosexuals" and saying they should be put to death.

There are, however, several troubling aspects to Hasnath's conviction.

He was fined a mere £100. If the stickers had declared East London a Jewish, black, Catholic or Muslim free zone Hasnath would have been almost certainl convicted of a racially or religiously aggravated hate crime and jailed. Why the leniency? Why the double standards? It looks like judicial homophobia.

Hasnath is an easy, convenient scapegoat. He was a lowly foot soldier. There is no evidence that he organised the Gay Free Zone campaign. The slow, secretive police investigation did not inspire confidence. Officers failed to apprehend the master-minds who produced the stickers and then distributed them to people like Hasnath. They've got away with it.

Hasnath was convicted using a discredited, authoritarian law, Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, which has been used repeatedly to suppress
peaceful, legitimate protests by human rights defenders, including LGBT campaigners.

This is what happened to members of OutRage! when six of us protested against 6,000 members the Islamist group, Hizb ut Tahrir, outside their mass rally at Wembley Arena in 1994.

They called for the killing of gays, apostates, Jews and unchaste women. They were not arrested but we were. Our crime? Displaying placards that
condemned Hizb ut Tahrir's incitement to murder. Although our placards did nothing more than factually expose the fundamentalist's violent homophobic agenda, it was deemed that they were distressing and offensive.

Section 5 is draconian and sweeping. It prohibits behaviour likely to cause "harassment, alarm or distress". Yes, even causing mere distress to
faint-hearts is now a crime.

This law can be abused to criminalise almost any words or actions. Campaigns against religious homophobia, like the OutRage! protest at Wembley, have many times resulted in LGBT activists being arrested under Section 5 for causing distress to homophobes and their religious supporters. We should not be rejoicing that the court used against Hasnath a harsh law that has so often been used unjustly against us. There is other, more credible, legislation that could have been used to bring him to justice.

The court's ruling in the Hasnath case broadens the criminalising nature of Section 5. Well meaning District Judge Jeremy Coleman said: "I think you used these stickers deliberately to offend and distress people, you certainly succeeded in doing that....You have upset people and they deserve an apology, you are not entitled to behave in this way."

The judge suggested that not only is causing distress a crime, but so is offending people and making them upset. Causing upset is, in my view, a much too low threshold for criminalisation. After all, almost anything that anyone says or does has the potential to cause someone upset, including
teaching evolution, advocating abortion and suggesting that religion is a form of superstition.

Under Judge Coleman's particularly wide interpretation and application of Section 5, most of the population are criminals. If we accept that causing
upset should be illegal, as he implied at the Hasnath hearing, we risk closing down free and open debate and criminalising all manner of dissentingopinions and alternative lifestyles that some people might find upsetting.

Freedom of expression is one of the most important of all human rights. It should be only restricted in extreme and very limited circumstances. The
open exchange of ideas - including unpalatable ideas - is a hallmark of a free and democratic society. There is no right to be not distressed, upset
or offended. Some of the most profound ideas in history - such as those of Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin - caused great distress and offence in
their time. While bigoted opinions should always be challenged, in most instances only explicit incitements to violence and damaging libels (such as false allegations of tax fraud or child abuse) should be criminalised.

Moreover, why did the Hasnath stickers provoke howls of rage from the LGBT community, when far worse homophobia in the same area of East London stirred hardly a murmur of protest? I don't recall any campaigns by LGBT groups or anti-fascist organisations in response to the wave of horrific queer-bashing attacks in the East End. Surely this actual physical violence - which left at least one gay man permanently disabled - is much more deserving of protests than a few stickers? Where is the LGBT outcry over homophobic assaults?

Nor can I remember any protests when the East London Mosque / London Muslim Centre hosted a series of virulently homophobic speakers, including Uthman Lateef and Abdul Karim Hattim. The latter gave lecturers in which he invited young Muslims to "Spot the Fag." Watch here.

The East London Mosque / London Muslim Centre helped create the atmosphere of hatred that has poisoned the minds of many Muslim youths, probably including Hasnath who worshipped there. They have never apologised for hosting homophobic hate preachers and have never given any assurances that they will not host them again in the future. Apart from OutRage!, no LGBT groups have publicly demanded that they do so. Why the silence from LGBT organisations that are supposedly dedicated to fighting homophobia?

Equally, there were no protests when Abdul Muhid openly incited the murder of gay people in East London and when the Crown Prosecution Service refused to bring him to trial. In my opinion, encouraging murder is many times more serious and dangerous than calling for a Gay Free Zone. Again, no protests by LGBT groups.

When OutRage! stood alone in challenging Muhid and the East London Mosque /London Muslim Centre we were denounced by some people as racists andIslamophobes. This is nonsense. We never attacked anyone because of their race or religion. We condemned their homophobia, in the same way that wecondemn the homophobic bigotry of fundamentalists of all faiths.

Many LGBT campaigners are now terrified of similar false, malicious allegations of racism or Islamophobia. To avoid such smears, they shy away
from robust responses to homophobia when it comes from religious and racial minorities. This inaction is de facto collusion with homophobia.

For information about Peter Tatchell's human rights campaigns and to make a donation: www.petertatchell.net

Peter Tatchell is Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, which campaigns for human rights the UK and worldwide: www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org His personal biography can be viewed here: www.petertatchell.net/biography.htm

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Miners against coal: the pit where former Welsh miners are protesting alongside climate change activists

The Merthyr Tydfil miners’ long history of struggle is spurring them on to a whole new form of action.

The retired miners and factory workers at the working men's club in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil are no strangers to hard times. Our second son was born during the 1984 strike and we had nothing for 12 months, one member tells me. The town continues to struggle with unemployment – last year the rate for men was nearly double that of the UK as a whole – over three decades on from the miners’ strike. But these days the atmosphere at the club is more resigned than radical. A singer croons his way through “Only the Lonely”, while talk at the bar is of better times: days when work was plentiful, days when, “you went down the mine a boy and came up a man”.

When the deep pits closed in the 1980s, Merthyr became a dumping ground – quite literally. Not only is the nearby landfill one of Europe's biggest, the valley is now home to the largest opencast (open-pit) mining operation in the UK. Its towering spoil tips throw a Mordor-esque shadow over the community below, coating homes and lungs alike in dust. 

Even former miners lament the small number of poorly-regulated jobs the Ffos-Y-Fran pit currently provides. Opencast is lorry driving, not mining, is a sentiment I hear repeated across the town, from taxi rank to chip shop.

Just as the town's fortunes rose with coal, so they have plummeted as the industry has declined. Last year coal generation fell to its lowest level since the 1950s and the need to decarbonise looks set to reduce demand further. The effects of last December's Paris climate agreement – and its aim to limit warming below 2C  are already being felt: the Aberthaw power station is a key destination for Welsh coal, but recently announced plans to reduce its output.

The club's secretary can only think of one member who still works in the mine. Others I encounter chase shifts at the local meat-packing factory, or have to travel for over an hour outside the town. Support for jobs unsurprisingly usually trumps support for climate change deals: “If it brings in work, we don’t have a problem with it,” is the general consensus inside the club. If someone tells you they're against the mine, they're probably from England, not Wales, says a resident of the nearby village of Fochriw. 

The people of Merthyr, however, are also no strangers to fighting perceived injustice. In the early nineteenth century, Merthyr's thriving ironworks made it the largest town in Wales. But when depression hit in 1831, low wages and sudden dismissals drove many to despair. By the start of June that year, thousands gathered to march against the iron masters and coal barons. And for the very first time, the red flag of revolution was raised on British soil.

185 years later, while club members sipped their drinks, others are writing Merthyr's history afresh. Up on the hills above the town  beyond the litter-strewn fields and the “Danger: No trespass” signs  around 300 campaigners from across the UK gathered to call for an end to coal.

Led by the climate activist group Reclaim the Power, many of the camp’s young attendees work for Westminster MPs and NGOs. A litter-pick was followed by the rapid erection of communal kitchens and sustainable loos. There were safe spaces, legal training, and warnings not to disturb the nearby nesting birds.

On Tuesday morning, the activists occupied and (temporarily) shut down operations at the mine – tying themselves to machinery and lying across access roads in an attempt to symbolise the red line that carbon emissions must not cross. Their action is the first in a fortnight of global anti-fossil fuel protests  from plans for train heists in Albany, to protesting in kayaks in Vancouver. And while global reach counts for little without local support, the climate campaigners at Ffos-Y-Fran are not alone.

Since 2007, members of the United Valleys Action Group (UVAG), a group of local residents and ex-miners, have fought the mine's planned expansion into the nextdoor valley. On Tuesday, many joined with the activists to blockade the entrance to the mine's headquarters. One member, 56-year-old Phil Duggan, has worked in the pits from the age of 16. And while he is “no tree-hugger”, he is tired of accepting jobs at any cost.

I don't want my children to suffer the ill health I have,” he says. “To some extent we [ex-miners] have been able to claim compensation. But the way things are going now you're not going to be able to claim anything. The deregulation of employment is making people desperate  we're going back to an era that our fore-fathers unionised to put right.”

In a strange twist of fate, it’s these Merthyr miners history of struggle – their long fight to protect their livelihoods and communities  which now spurs them to action against new mines.


Phil Duggan entered the pits aged 16. Photos: India Bourke

Wayne Thomas at the National Union of Mineworkers says he recognises that, unless carbon capture technology can develop apace, the Paris agreement looks set to speed up coal's decline. But he also believes that British coal has an important role in responsibly managing the transition to renewables – a role that includes reducing foreign imports, cleaning up the dirty acts of private mining companies, and putting control back in the hands of local communities. If you're going to phase out an industry, you've got to put something in place to limit the damage.

For evidence, he need point no further than the co-operatively run mine at Tower colliery, where an independently-managed fund ensures that, when the time comes, the opencast site will be carefully regenerated. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the privately-owned operation at Ffos-Y-Fran for certain.

Last year, the Welsh Assembly voted in favour of a moratorium on opencast mining but the government has yet to act. This may change depending on how the balance of power falls after Thursday's elections. Assembly candidates from both the Green party and Liberal Democrats voiced their support for the UVAG campaigners at a meeting in one of the villages effected by the new pit proposals.

Utlimately, the decline of some of Welsh coal's main customers  the steel works at Port Talbot and the power station at Aberthaw  is likely do more to undermine UK coal than the red lines campaigners draw. But, along the way, new alliances between climate idealists and unions could breathe new life into both movements. In the words of Merthyr Tydfil’s ancient motto: “Nid cadarn ond brodyrdde”  Only brotherhood is strong.


Chris and Alyson, founders of United Valleys Action Group.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.