NS Special Report - 'For Somalis, their trust in British law is about - and this is their word - being ''civilised'', meaning treated with respect'

Somali immigrants in London have imported their own system of sharia justice. Alex McBride reports o

In a nondescript community hall in a road leading up to the Royal Artillery Barracks, outreach workers are running a workshop on gang awareness. Ahmed, playing along, paces back and forth. Tall, slightly stooped and dressed in tennis whites, he lopes like a pro taking the Florida sun. Ahmed is listing the things he likes to eat: pizza, fried chicken, cheese on toast. "Oh yeah," chimes another Somali boy, "cheese on toast."

Yusuf is watching Ahmed pace. He fled Mogadishu when he was 11, after his father was murdered. The remnants of his family jumped in a car and drove north with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. Yusuf and his family wandered from Kenya to Italy and finally to Woolwich, east London.

These young Somalis are caught between two worlds. Part of them, their face on the street, is set for the metropolis.

In Somalia, life is governed by the clan and here in Britain the Somalis have settled by clan. You go where you have friends. One man tells me that all Somalis are brothers. As it happens, most of them living in Woolwich are from the Isaq, a clan that predominates in the north. Everyone not only knows everyone else, but can show through lineage how they are related.

They are very recent immigrants to Britain, having fled the civil war that brought down the Siad Barre dictatorship in 1991, and the bloodbath of the ensuing power struggle.

Woolwich, once known as the place from which Captain Cook set sail, and where the empire's armies were trained in gunnery, is now a repository for an influx of new Londoners, all jostling to find their place. Thirty per cent of the local population are from an ethnic minority. Unemployment runs at twice the London average and nearly 15 per cent of the inhabitants depend on benefit.

But the Somalis have gone further than most newcomers. They have brought their tribal legal principles and their clan courts with them. To British eyes, this is a startling thing to have done - even ungrateful - but to a Somali it seems natural, because in Somalia, even justice flows from the clan. Their courts, underpinned by sharia law and made up of elders from the clans of the wronged and the wrongdoer, can settle anything, including crime.

But here in London, they have found limits to their courts' reach even in their own eyes, and they have turned to the British courts. Fear on the streets has come to Woolwich: they are called "drive-bys" and they involve African Caribbean youths armed with baseball bats, who cruise around looking for Somalis to attack.

In response, Ahmed and other young Somalis have formed their own gang, the Woolwich Boys. They insist that you do not have to be Somali or Muslim to join, but the Isaq boys are all members of the same gang. They have a territory and reputation to defend. This means battling others such as, say, the Ghetto Boys, an African Caribbean gang that has staked out Lewisham. The result is a perpetual cycle of violence.

In June 2000, after a concert by Sahra Axmad, a popular female Somali singer, at the Stratford Rex club in east London, the Woolwich Boys gatecrashed a local house party being held by youths from a different clan.

Temperatures were already running high; the rival gangs had faced off at the club. The Woolwich Boys were asked to leave, but they refused and were confronted by the other group. The exact events are in dispute, but in the melee a Woolwich Boy stabbed a member of the other clan in the back, seriously injuring him.

They called Musa. Musa is in his early twenties. Softly spoken and open-faced, he is already a pillar of the community. He divides his time between youth work and liaising with the police on behalf of the Somali community. If something goes wrong, Musa is the man who will be asked to fix it.

He got the call late and crossed the river to Stratford, where he managed to bail all 14 of the Woolwich Boys. For the elders of the Somali community and the parents of those involved, this was an issue between the two clans. No formal charge against the accused boy was ever made.

Instead of a crown court or youth court trial, they convened a Somali court. This is a very decorous affair. All the elders of the clans meet, which can mean anything up to 60 members of the community. The suspected wrongdoer's clan will have already put out feelers to the wronged clan to see whether, in principle, it will accept an apology.

The court's emphasis is on resolution. The clan of the suspected wrongdoer acknowledges that a crime has been committed and apologises for it, even though nothing has yet been proved. The court is inquisitorial. It tries to find out what happened by eyewitness testimony. In this instance, the evidence is inconclusive, as the other Woolwich Boys, the friends of the accused, refuse to identify him. The accused, for his part, doggedly maintains that he is innocent.

Again the court asks the victim whether the accused is the guilty man; again the victim points him out. That is enough; the verdict, or rather the consensus, is guilty. There is no appeal. The wrongdoer's clan must pay the victim's family £2,000. The penalty imposed by the court is always financial. In return, the victim's clan does not take the matter to the police and no one gets arrested. It is a way of saying sorry and acknowledging the two clans' respect for each other.

Surprisingly, the court has reached beyond the boundaries of the Somali community. In 1996, a Somali working in a laundry attacked an African Caribbean colleague who had accused him of being lazy. The Somali beat him with a metal bar, breaking his arms and fracturing his skull. The Somali was arrested, and faced a lengthy prison sentence. The police had a watertight case.

Despite the mistrust between the Somali and African Caribbean communities, the elders of the accused's clan made overtures to the victim's family. They apologised for the attack and undertook to find out what had happened, exactly as they would have had the victim been another Somali. Once fault was established, they began to negotiate, finally settling on the unusually high price of £10,000 to be paid to the victim, "to help him recover from his injuries", as it was put to me. Soon after, all charges were dropped.

As Musa explains, "When Somalis are sorting things out among themselves, it is not a police matter. It is the way of resolving problems . . . The elders deal with trouble in order to stop the argument from getting out of hand, because if it does, then people can't back down."

Strictly speaking, in Islam this edict applies to armies and not individuals or gangs. Somali kids have reinterpreted it as a code of one for all and all for one. On hostile streets, this is a sign of honour and a reassurance.

Dr Zaki Badawi, principal of the Muslim College and legal scholar, talks about sharia law in its wider context. He says it has been unfairly portrayed and that its tenets could be a useful component of British law. A kindly, energetic man in his eighties, he and the Muslim College provide a forum and the expertise to resolve, with the agreement of the litigants, civil matters under sharia law.

He argues that the aim of Islamic law is to find the truth. "Islamic law tries not to reward the clever lawyer who attempts to get his client off with a bravura performance."

In the Islamic courts, there are no hectoring cross-examinations or clever procedural delays by defence lawyers - two aspects of the British system that Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, has recently criticised. Badawi contrasts the British courts with Islamic courts, where it is much harder, he argues, for wrongdoers to escape justice on legal technicalities.

Islamic and, by extension, Somali courts emphasise the importance of the victim. A common criticism of the English system is that the victim has been forgotten and that balance needs to be restored. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, in an attempt to include victims in the process of justice, has floated the idea of asking those who have been raped what sort of tariff should be imposed on the convicted rapist.

Many will feel uneasy and argue that a family's desire for revenge would distort punishment and make it unjust, but sharia law is not fuelled by a lust for revenge. Badawi explains this by describing how death row works in Jordan. After a few years of the murderer's being on death row, the family of the victim of the homicide is given a choice: it can either demand its right and have the murderer executed or it can accept a payment and commute the sentence to life imprisonment.

The system, run by the Jordanian king himself, enjoys an unlikely prestige. His presence underlines the importance of the murdered person and the gravity of the crime. The victim's family is given the choice in order to empower it. And because it feels powerful, it also feels itself to be responsible.

"Islam teaches that it is better to forgive; if you have a choice between vengeance and God's grace, you choose God's grace," says Badawi.

The British Crime Survey has found that only a third of victims of crimes such as robbery and burglary want their assailant to go to jail. Arguably, there is a desire for an alternative to punishment and revenge.

Sharia law does, however, fail women. Rape is a serious crime, but the onus is on the woman not to rock the boat, especially if the alleged rapist holds a high position in society. A young Kurdish woman told me that if a daughter is raped, it is often considered best to keep quiet about it. A raped woman brings aayib, or shame, to the family. Losing your virginity out of wedlock is the sin of zinna, one of the gravest in Islam. The effect is that she cannot get married, and that is often the role for which she has been groomed since childhood.

In rape cases, there is often an assumption that the woman has led the man on. If the woman does complain, she will not be backed up and her evidence will be considered less seriously than a man's. The law reflects cultural control over women. In Woolwich, Somali women would never allow themselves to be alone with a man who was not from their family.

By any account, the police have had real success in forcing down levels of youth gang violence in south-east London. They have employed a mixture of high-visibility policing, using Police and Criminal Evidence Act powers to stop and search young people on the streets, to take weapons away before they can be used, and reaching out to the youngsters whom they are trying to disarm.

Chief Inspector Dayne Pearson is in charge of community policing in Woolwich. His strategy has been to take his officers into the local youth clubs to explain to the kids that they are not stopping-and-searching to victimise them, but to protect them. By becoming a regular there, he has been taken into the kids' confidence and they tell him their concerns. Pearson is realistic, however, about the limits of what the police can do.

"Policing is about the community as well. It's not just us saying how it's going to be, because we police by consent. If they don't want it, it won't happen."

In the past year, however, gang violence overall has increased in intensity and spread beyond Woolwich and Lewisham to leafier neighbourhoods such as Bexley and Bromley, out in Kent. It now betrays a previously unknown degree of organisation - and violence.

Musa credits the police with avoiding Oldham-style riots in Woolwich, but a killing could blow apart the faltering truce between Somali and African Caribbean youths. Both sides habitually carry knives and baseball bats. Pearson, while doubting a rerun of the trouble in Oldham, believes that such a killing would set back relations with the police - perhaps irreparably.

It was a murder over turf, not internecine battles between teenage gangs, that gave the Somali community in Woolwich its first tragedy. Hasan Bide sold qat, a plant with leaves that, when chewed, produce a mild high. Qat is very popular among Somalis, and is not illegal. Bide sold boxes of qat all over England, supplying the main Somali communities from London to Sheffield. He also sold his qat from motorway service stations, often at night. In February 2002, he was making a delivery to Milton Keynes. While he was waiting to make the sale, a group of Somalis from another clan attacked him, stabbing him several times. They stole the qat and ran, leaving Bide to bleed to death.

Rumour spread quickly that the killing had been ordered by those who resented Bide's business and wanted to muscle in on his trade. People close to the dead man see a more banal truth: it was a robbery that went wrong. To them, it is incomprehensible how the attackers could leave a man to die for an £80 box of qat. This outrage led to the perpetrators being caught quickly, still in possession of the blood-stained box - which they had failed to sell.

In Somalia, Bide's clan would have had two options: to go to court, seeking to accept an apology and money, or to seek revenge by killing the murderer - an act that can be sanctioned by the murderer's family. Yet in a big show of trust in British law, most Somalis in Woolwich, including Bide's family, did not want a revenge murder nor would they accept a Somali court. They wanted to see his killer or killers go to jail.

For Somalis, their trust in British law is about - and this is their word - being "civilised". They do not mean civilised as opposed to savage, but civilised in the sense of treating other people with respect, according to the rule of law.

It is a hope that encapsulates their political aspirations for Somalia. The Somalis are a people who have come from a place where those in authority have often stolen from them or threatened their lives. Many of the young Somalis who have settled in Britain lost their parents in political killings.

The Somali courts are likely to remain. In many ways, they have been a success. They keep young men out of jail and give the elders, who do not speak English well, some control over the young, just when they feel have no role and no meaningful life.

Sharia law may have some harsh and unattractive aspects, but we have many goals in common with the Muslim population. It is worth looking at concepts based on Islamic law. We are already embracing some Muslim community-based remedies, such as restitution for victims and the resolution this brings.

Yes, it is true that people coming to this country should accept our laws. But it is worth looking at what they, in turn, can contribute to our legal system.