Howard opposed racism law 'to protect Rushdie'

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The Independent Online


Fears that Salman Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses, could have been charged with religious discrimination may have been a key factor in persuading Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, to block Europe's new anti-racism laws, it emerged yesterday.

A secret British draft, presented to European ministers on Thursday, shows Britain's main objection to the plan was the call for a ban on incitement to hatred on the grounds of religion. Mr Rushdie outraged Muslims with his attack on Islam in The Satanic Verses. Britain, unlike many of its European partners, has no law against religious discrimination and has defended the author's right to free speech.

The draft British document, presented to justice ministers before their acrimonious meeting in Brussels on Thursday, shows Mr Howard was prepared to consider changes to British law to harmonise British and European measures against "incitement to violence or racial hatred" on the grounds of "colour, race or national or ethnic origin". The resolution, backed by Britain's 14 partners, included "religion" in the list of grounds for discrimination, but British drafters scotched the word from their proposed list.

The possibility that a law against religious discrimination could have brought Rushdie, or others who speak out against a religion, before the British courts, is believed by senior Brussels officials to have been one reason why Britain opposed the measure at the last minute.

The Home Office last night denied the Rushdie case had been a factor, saying Britain did not deem it necessary to pass a law against religious discrimination. Whether Rushdie would have faced prosecution had the European proposal passed was "hypothetical", it said.

Mr Howard has been criticised for blocking the European measure, which included proposals to outlaw the excusing or denial of crimes against humanity, in particular the Holocaust. However, the secret draft, obtained by the Independent, shows Britain was prepared "to consider" introducing a law to ban "denial" of crimes against humanity if the action was degrading to people of a certain colour, race, national, or ethnic origin. However, Britain again refused to consider making "Holocaust denial" illegal if it was degrading to the people on the grounds of religion.

Jewish leaders yesterday protested to the Home Secretary, who is himself Jewish, over his action. The President of the Board of Deputies, Eldred Tabachnik, said it was "deeply regrettable and unfortunate that the Government has chosen to veto this initiative".

Jack Straw, Labour's home affairs spokesman, said Mr Howard "will not have enhanced Britain's reputation as a country deeply concerned about racism".