UK rioters face harsh justice

Two men who posted messages on Facebook inciting other people to riot in their home towns during last week’s upheavals in the United Kingdom have been sentenced to four years each in prison by a judge at Chester Crown Court.

Jordan Blackshaw (20) set up an “event” called Smash Down in Northwich Town for the night of August 8 on the social networking site but no one, apart from the police who were monitoring the page, turned up at the pre-arranged meeting point outside a McDonald’s restaurant. Blackshaw was promptly arrested.

Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan (22) of Latchford, Warrington, used his Facebook account in the early hours of August 9 to design a page called “The Warrington Riots”. The court was told it caused a wave of panic.

When Sutcliffe-Keenan woke up the following morning with a hangover he removed the page and apologised, saying it had been a joke. His message was distributed to 400 Facebook contacts, but no rioting broke out as a result.

Sentencing Blackshaw to four years in a young offenders institution, Judge Elgan Edwards QC said he had committed an “evil act”. He said: “Your conduct was quite disgraceful and the title of the message you posted on Facebook chills the blood.”

Sutcliffe-Keenan, the judge said, “put a very considerable strain on police resources in Warrington”.

The heavy sentences were imposed as defence lawyers and civil rights groups criticised the “disproportionate” sentences imposed on some convicted rioters. The latest official figures show nearly 1300 suspects have been brought before the courts.

The revelation that magistrates were advised by justices’ clerks to disregard normal sentencing guidelines when dealing with riot-related cases alarmed lawyers, who warned it would trigger a spate of appeals.

This week Anderson Fernandes (22) appeared before magistrates in Manchester charged with burglary after he took two scoops of ice cream and a cone from a pâtisserie in the city centre. He gave the cone away.

Fernandes admitted burglary in regard to the cone and an unconnected charge of handling stolen goods after a vacuum cleaner was recovered from his home. District judge Jonathan Taaffe said: “I have a public duty to deal swiftly and harshly with matters of this nature.”

In sentencing four other convicted Manchester rioters crown court judge Andrew Gilbert made clear why he was disregarding sentencing guidelines when he said “the offences of the night of August 9 … takes them completely outside the usual context of criminality. The courts should show that outbursts of criminal behaviour like this will be met with longer sentences than if committed in isolation.”

The justice ministry said the courts had dealt with 1277 alleged offenders of whom more than 700 have been remanded in custody. About 21% of those appearing before the courts have been juveniles.

Sally Ireland, policy director of the law reform organisation, Justice, said: “The circumstances of public disorder should be treated as an aggravating factor and one would expect that to push up sentences, but not by as far as some of the cases we have seen. Some instances are completely out of all proportion. There will be a flurry of appeals.” —

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Owen Bowcott
Owen Bowcott works from London. Owen is a correspondent for the Guardian based in London. He is formerly the Guardian's Ireland correspondent and also worked on the foreign newsdesk. Owen Bowcott has over 4364 followers on Twitter.

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