Two men have been handed four-year jail terms for setting up Facebook pages encouraging people to riot – even though the riots never took place.
The sentences are some of the stiffest handed down so far by the courts since last week's widespread disturbances and signal how determined the judiciary is to punish anyone caught using social media to spread looting or violence.
Jordan Blackshaw, 20, from Marston near Northwich, and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, from Warrington, appeared at Chester Crown Court yesterday and both pleaded guilty to inciting violent disorder.
The court heard how Blackshaw was the only person who turned up to his own riot and was promptly arrested by police whilst Sutcliffe-Keenan's riot page was only up for a few hours before he took it down again.
Blackshaw labelled his Facebook group "Smash dwn [sic] in Northwich Town" and called on his friends to meet behind McDonald's in the town centre on Tuesday 9 August for "lootin". The police had already infiltrated his group and, according to the prosecutor Martin McRobb, only nine of his 147 friends even bothered to reply to his call to arms.
Sutcliffe-Keenan, meanwhile, used his Facebook account in the early hours of 9 August to design a web page entitled The Warrington Riots. The page was live for several hours before he took it down but it had already caused a wave of panic in the town.
According to prosecutors, 47 people confirmed their attendance on the site before it was shut down. In the end, however, no one turned up.
His lawyer, Rebecca Tanner, claimed that her client had been drunk when he posted his messages, and when he woke up hungover the following morning he quickly realised what he had done. "He had a thick head from the alcohol consumed at lunchtime, and a phone call from a friend prompted him to remember his action," she said. "He realised the gravity of what he had done, removed the page and added an apology and words to the effect that it was a joke."
But Mr McRobb told the court Sutcliffe-Keenan had fully intended to cause mayhem. "He included on the site a graphic photograph of a scene of riot in which police officers in riot gear were in a stand-off with a group of rioters," he said. "He also posted an image on his web page of himself and his associates in what police have described as a gangster-like pose." Judge Elgan Edwards told Blackshaw he had committed an "evil" act and sentenced him to four years in a Young Offenders' Institution.
"This happened at a time when collective insanity gripped the nation," he said. "Your conduct was quite disgraceful and the title of the message you posted on Facebook chills the blood. You sought to take advantage of crime elsewhere and transpose it to the peaceful streets of Northwich."
Sentencing Sutcliffe-Keenan to four years in jail, Judge Edwards said: "You caused a very real panic and you put a very considerable strain on police resources in Warrington."
Phil Thompson, an Assistant Chief Constable of Cheshire Police, said he welcomed the length of the sentences.
"If we cast our minds back just a few days to last week and recall the way in which technology was used to bring people together to commit acts of criminality, it is easy to understand the four-year sentences that were handed down in court today," he said.
At the height of the riots police chiefs warned that they would pursue those using social networking to encourage violent confrontations. In the past few days a string of arrests has been made on charges of inciting disorder.
Riots in brief...
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