Last year, during protests against the attack on Gaza, a mixed group of demonstrators clashed with police. But when the alleged culprits were arrested in dawn raids, nearly all those taken were young Muslims
Badi Tebani and his wife were sleeping peacefully when all hell broke loose. He shudders at the memory. The front door was forced open, and then came the screaming. "Wah, wah, wah, get down, get down, you are under arrest." Any number of voices. He thought it was a nightmare – that he was back in Algeria in the bad old days before he was granted political asylum in Britain, and that the military had broken into the house. When he opened his eyes, his bedroom was full of police officers. "I have diabetes and high blood pressure," he says quietly. "It was worse than Algeria, even. I became very depressed."
It was 5am, April 2009. Badi's eldest son Hamza, 23, takes up the story. "I woke up and tried to get out of bed. The next thing is three police officers jump on top of me with their knees, and they handcuffed me so hard I screamed. That's when I really woke up." Hamza had been sleeping in shorts. When he asked if he could put a shirt on the police said no and opened the window. "It was freezing. I was shaking."
His three brothers, the youngest of whom was 15 at the time, were also handcuffed. Hamza says there were too many officers to count – somewhere between 20 and 30. They took computers, clothes, iPhones, everything. "I've never been in trouble, never been to the police station except when my car was broken into, and they were treating me as a criminal. One of the officers was playing card games with my iPhone, another was just ordering coffee."
Badi, an Arabic teacher, tuts. "They make our house into a coffee shop."
But it wasn't Badi or Hamza the police were after. It was Yahia, one of Hamza's younger brothers. When Yahia heard that the police were looking for him he was confounded. "I didn't know why they were there, and then I hear my name and I'm shocked."
Three months earlier, in January last year, Yahia had been outside the Israeli embassy on a fractious demonstration against Israel's sustained bombing of Gaza. The British foreign secretary, David Milliband, had condemned the "unacceptable" loss of life caused by the Israeli strikes on Gaza, saying the "dark and dangerous" events could fuel extremism, and had called for an immediate ceasefire from both Israel and Hamas.
Protesters complained that the demonstration was policed provocatively and that they had been "kettled" inside a tunnel and beaten. Meanwhile, the police complained that they had been assaulted by demonstrators.
Yahia, 18, says both accounts are true. He claims that the policing was aggressive and intimidatory, and that demonstrators responded by throwing sticks and bottles at the embassy and the officers, who were wearing full-body shields. Yahia picked up a few sticks from discarded banners and flung them in the direction of the police. He was one of approximately 50,000 demonstrators, many of whom threw objects. It was a mixed bunch – white and black, Muslim and Christian, Stop the War Coalition, CND, all sorts. This was one of a number of Gaza demonstrations covered on television news, and it was reported there had been some trouble – but nothing on the scale of, say, the G20 protests or the poll tax riots.
Yahia, who was studying media technology at Kingston University, had gone on the march for two reasons – to protest, and to interview fellow demonstrators for a project on Gaza. The crowd was held by the police for four hours and eventually released. Some people were filmed and had to give their name and address to the police, some were arrested. Yahia simply left of his own accord, and eventually got home at midnight.
He told Hamza it had been a difficult day, it had given him plenty of food for thought, and that was that – until the police broke into the family home in Finsbury Park, north London, three months later. Yahia was arrested in March and charged with violent disorder and burglary – at one point during the demo, he says, he had taken a chair from the nearby Starbucks to sit on, but police reports said the Starbucks was trashed and mugs and chairs were used as weapons. He was advised that the burglary charge would be dropped if he pleaded guilty to violent disorder, for which he would probably receive a suspended sentence or community service. He thought a lesser charge of affray would have been fairer, but agreed to the compromise. "It would always look bad in the future if it says burglary. People won't know what really happened, so I couldn't risk that being on my file."
What Yahia didn't realise was nearly all the protesters who pleaded guilty to violent disorder would end up receiving immediate prison sentences. His friend Sidali is serving two years. Yahia was in court the day Sidali was sentenced. "He didn't even throw sticks," he claims. "He just pushed or something, and his clothes were ripped a bit. In court he was crying. The shock on his face, I've never seen anything like that. Pah!" He blows his lips together in dismay.
Yahia is to be sentenced this month. How's he feeling? "Stressed. Pah. Just waiting to go in. I've been asking my friend what it's like. He says time goes quick – he doesn't want to scare me."
It's not just the prospect of prison that terrifies him, it's what comes after. "If I've got 'ex-prisoner' on my file, how am I going to get a job? It will destroy my career."
At Isleworth crown court in London, where the cases are being heard, a disturbing pattern is emerging. Most of the 78 protesters charged with public order offences were young men in their late teens or 20s. Many were students. And nearly all were Muslim. Some 22 protesters have already received prison terms of up to two and a half years for public order offences, and more cases are due to come before the courts in the coming months.
The Gaza Protesters Defence Campaign has been formed by the families of some of those arrested, together with sympathetic MPs, the Stop the War Coalition and CND. The campaign aims to highlight the perceived injustice, and has launched a petition which will be presented to the attorney general and the director of public prosecutions.
Earlier this month, families queued up outside committee room 15 in the House of Commons for a campaign meeting. Many feel bewildered by the sentences the courts have passed on their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. When Joanna Gilmore, a researcher at the University of Manchester's law school who has monitored the cases, gets to her feet the room is already full, and latecomers are forced to listen from the corridor. "The vast majority of the people involved here are of exemplary character," she says, to mutters of approval. "The demonstrations were overwhelmingly peaceful and if you compare the relatively minor disturbances that took place with the violence on other demonstrations these sentences are very severe."
Gilmore, who has followed all the court cases, says the police arrested more people at the Gaza protests than at any political demonstration since the poll tax riots, when about 90 were charged with public order offences. At last year's G20 demonstrations, during which a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland was looted, 20 were charged.
"Many were on their first demonstration and were protesting because they were appalled about what was happening in Gaza," Gilmore says. "These people and their families are in shock and say that they will never take part in political demonstrations again."
Bruce Kent, a former general secretary of CND and long-time peace activist, gets to his feet to address the packed meeting. Kent, 80, had been on the demonstration and says he was "amazed and indignant" about the reaction of the police and the courts.
"I don't know why there isn't absolute outrage … All this will do is solidify in people's minds the idea that there is a persecution of Muslims which is determined and organised and will result in some young people being radicalised."
He says there is a huge discrepancy in the way different people are treated by the law, and recalls a time in 1986 when he had been convicted of criminal damage after cutting a wire fence during a protest at a nuclear base. "I was in the crown court waiting with my toothbrush packed. I thought I was off to one of her majesty's holiday camps. Not at all, not even a fine. Why? Because I am middle-class and white."
Like Yahia Tebani, 24-year-old Ashir was in bed when the police raided her west London flat at 4am. The strange thing is, she says, her brother, who is due to be sentenced for his part in the demonstrations this month, has never been interested in "politics or religion" and only joined the protest because he was at his cousins' house when they decided to go.
Although Ashir says her younger sibling did not throw any missiles, she admits he did protect himself when the "police people started fighting". He left as soon as he could, giving his details to officers. Two months later the police made their unannounced visit.
"We heard a disturbance at the neighbour's flat first and I heard loads of banging and shouting," she says. "I looked out of the window but no one had police uniforms on so I didn't know what was happening. A few minutes later when we were getting back into bed we heard people running up the stairs and then our door burst open. I was so scared because I had no idea what was happening or who these people were."
Every detail chimes with Yahia's experience – the family were handcuffed for two and a half hours, Ashir only had her nightclothes on and was not allowed to get dressed and her computer was taken. "They said I may have weapons in the house, but I didn't understand – what weapons could I have? I am not a criminal. They went through everything. They said they were looking for evidence, for clothes that my brother had been wearing on the demonstration. They took my laptop which had my university dissertation on spa tourism on it because they said he had had access to it. I asked if I could at least email the dissertation to myself but they said I wasn't allowed to touch it. I still have not got it back almost a year later even though I keep asking for it. I had to start my dissertation from where I had last saved it on a uni computer."
Ashir, who does not want to give her real name because she fears going public might result in her brother being given a bigger sentence, still has panic attacks about what happened that night. "I am scared if I see any police anywhere. Even if I was angry about something I would never go on a demonstration now because I have seen what can happen."
Muhammad Sawalha, president of the British Muslim Initiative anti-racist group, has two questions: why were such a high proportion of those arrested Muslim, and why have they been dealt with so heavy-handedly?
Actually, Judge John Denniss has been quite clear about sentencing policy. He has said, more than once, the draconian sentences are meant to act as a deterrent to future protesters. But, because of the fact that the people being brought before the courts are disproportionately Muslim, Sawalha says, the consequences could be disastrous: "The British Muslim Initiative encourages Muslims to express their feelings and ambitions and frustrations only through political and legal processes. But if anything sends the message that Muslims cannot express themselves through political processes, and they will not be dealt with like others, it will give more strength to the fringes within the community who say democracy and the political system doesn't apply to Muslims in this country. This will only increase the frustration and sense of alienation among these people."
Dr Khalil al-Ani says his son Mosab was one of the lucky ones. There was no pre-dawn raid, no handcuffs, no ransacking. He was simply asked to surrender his passport to the police. Months after throwing an empty Orangina bottle – the police said it was at them, Mosab said it was at the Israeli embassy gates – he was charged. Mosab, who was on a medical access course, hoped to be a dentist or dental technician. He is now in prison serving a one-year sentence.
It was the first demonstration Mosab had been on since his family marched against the Iraq war in 2003. Al-Ani, an Iraqi who works as a GP in Wakefield and Leeds, was pleased his son would be on the march. His two sisters were also going, and Al-Ani felt Mosab, then 20, would protect them.
Mosab was arrested on the day and taken to a police station where he admitted throwing the bottle, apologised, and stressed that he had not aimed it at the police. He was released and returned to Yorkshire, but didn't tell his father what had happened – he didn't want to worry him, and he assumed it was the last he would hear of it.
"He didn't think it was serious because how many times have you seen something like this or more serious, and nothing happens." Al-Ani stops, and apologises for his tears. "I'm sorry I get so emotional. I came to this country in 1981. You can hear by the way I speak my accent is not purely British. It is a foreign accent after all these years. But Mosab was born here in 1988 – he is British in every sense. This is the first time I feel that because he's a Muslim he's been discriminated against. What he did was certainly wrong, but he should be treated similar to a British citizen. He's gone to prison for a single bottle that didn't hurt anybody."
The astonishing thing is, he says, that the judge gave Mosab a flawless character reference. "He said, 'I know you came here peacefully, I know you have an excellent character, I know you were not armed, you said sorry to the police.'" He was sure his son would go free. "I was so pleased. Then the judge says, 'I'm going to give you this sentence to deter other people.'"
Back in north London, Badi Tebani is looking at the door the police forced open. As they left the house, they made a point of telling him it was still in one piece. "When they finished their work, the police officers show me the door and say, 'It's not broken, look, look,' and they took a photograph. I told him, it doesn't matter if you broke the door, you broke my life."