BNP leader walks free as race-hate prosecution fails

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The Independent Online

The Crown Prosecution Service's high-risk strategy of bringing race hate charges against the British National Party (BNP) appeared to have backfired last night as its leader walked free from court and vowed that he would not tone down his language.

The Crown Prosecution Service's high-risk strategy of bringing race hate charges against the British National Party (BNP) appeared to have backfired last night as its leader walked free from court and vowed that he would not tone down his language.

Nick Griffin was cleared of two charges relating to speeches filmed by a BBC undercover documentary team, and the jury failed to reach verdicts on two others. His co-defendant, Mark Collett, was cleared of four similar charges, and the jury failed to reach verdicts on a further four counts in his case. The men will be retried on the unresolved indictments, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) later disclosed.

The risks attached to pursuing Mr Griffin through the courts were evident on the steps of the Leeds courthouse late yesterday when, in the full glare of the TV cameras, the BNP leader made a victory speech out of his acquittal.

"If the Crown Prosecution Service feel they must continue to persecute us for speaking the truth, we will see them in court," he said. " This evening, millions of people in Britain will be holding their heads a little higher and walking a little taller."

The impending retrial prevented the CPS from discussing its decision to bring the BNP to court, but Labour MP Shahid Malik said it had been important to test existing legislation. "The publicity [the BNP gains] might be negative, but it is a price worth paying. This case was in the public interest," he told Channel 4 News.

Mr Griffin's defence team concluded his speech to the jury as MPs began to debate proposals to make inciting religious hatred an offence. Labour's defeat on those proposals mean that the CPS would be unable to use them against the BNP in a case such as this.

Those who campaign against the far right fear the court verdict will embolden Mr Griffin, who appeared in one of the windows of the courtroom as soon as the jury was discharged and was cheered by supporters carrying Union flags.

Mr Griffin said the court case had been "very good for the party", which had secured £20,000 from one donor ­ the single biggest donation it has received.

The Searchlight organisation urged the public to continue to challenge the BNP's philosophy. "People should not feel scared or frightened to question or correct the language that the BNP use," said a spokesman Nick Lowles. "There are going to be a lot of people who might now feel they cannot... and it is a concern that this [result] silences criticism of the BNP."

The 14-day trial heard how Mr Griffin, 46, and Mr Collett, 24, were charged with offences in relation to a series of speeches they made in West Yorkshire in 2004. They formed part of a BBC documentary on the BNP, The Secret Agentwhich was broadcast in July of that year.

Mr Griffin argued that the comments he had made were a political rallying cry to party members and potential supporters rather than an incitement to any kind of hatred. He also argued that his target was not race but religion (Islam) ­ and that, as the law stood, could not be a crime.

Mr Griffin said he was not commenting on "Asians" as a racial group. His occasional use of the word "Asian" during verbal attacks on the Muslim faith was a mistake, attributable to the fact that he was thinking on his feet. He expounded his political views so vigorously that the judge twice reminded him the trial was not a party political broadcast.

In closing their cases, both defence counsel referred to a judgment made by Lord Justice Sedley in the High Court in July 1999 in which he said: " Free speech includes not only the inoffensive, but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having."

But Mr Malik said freedom of speech did not mean the right to " persecute and frighten" and that it had never been "an unqualified principle." He said: "If you look at [this case and the] cartoons that are fanning the flames in Europe [a reference to those of the Prophet Mohamed, first printed in Denmark], Muslims will feel they are the new Jews of Europe. We've discovered [today] that there's a gaping hole in the legislation and we need new legislation to plug that gap."

A CPS spokeswoman said that Mr Griffin would face retrial on one charge of using words and behaviour intended to stir up racial hatred, under Section 18(1a) of the Public Order Act. He will also stand trial on one count of using words or behaviour likely to stir up racial hatred under Section 18(1b).

Mr Collett will face two charges of using words and behaviour intended to stir up racial hatred, and two further counts of using word and behaviour likely to stir up racial hatred.

The contentious statements

Nick Griffin on Stephen Lawrence:

"Notorious for taxing the younger kids for their dinner money and he was a drug dealer."

Verdict: not guilty

Griffin on Islam:

"This wicked vicious faith has expanded from a handful of cranky lunatics about 1300 years ago, to its now sweeping country after country before it."

Verdict: none reached

Griffin alleging that white girls are groomed for sex by Muslim men:

"Their good book tells them that that's acceptable."

Verdict: none reached

Mark Collett on asylum-seekers:

"They're not just coming here to take money out of our pot that we've paid into, they're coming here to take our whole country, to take everything. "

Verdict: not guilty

Mark Collett on Asian men:

"They don't go out mugging Asian grandmas, they don't go stabbing each other, they don't go trying to solicit sex off little Pritesh or little Sanjita, they go straight to the whites 'cos they are trying to destroy us and they are the racists... Let's do our best and let's show these ethnics the door in 2004."

Verdict: none reached

Mark Collett on asylum-seekers:

"Cockroaches."

Verdict: none reached