Night the row about riot sentencing was reignited

Nina Lakhani hears a rare and explosive public intervention

As a district judge who sentenced dozens of rioters at a south-east London court during the height of last summer's riots, Tan Ikram is ideally placed to reflect on the judiciary's response to the disturbances.

But what makes his forthright defence of the custodial terms handed out to looters so remarkable is that judges – especially those outside the very senior rank – almost never publicly comment on such matters.

So Mr Ikram, who sits at Camberwell Green magistrates' court, was in uncharted territory this week as he told an audience of Londoners that the "clear signal" sent out by judges helped quell the gratuitous violence that had Britons glued to newspapers and television screens last August.

Mr Ikram, who was called to the Bench in 2003, was adamant that the furore over sentences perceived by some as "draconian" is unjustified.

In his court last August he said: "Let the message go out: any person who finds the proceeds of looting and chooses to keep them will face immediate sentences of imprisonment."

Almost a year later, it is clear that he feels this tough stance was appropriate, fair and justified given the extraordinary circumstances of widespread public disorder.

He told the audience at the University of Westminster in Ealing: "A judge has to assess whether there are substantial grounds to believe a person before them is likely to re-offend. [This meant that a lot of] of those caught red-handed at the scene, bearing in mind what was going on at the time, were remanded in custody. This was a proper application of the Bail Act."

He added: "The deterrent sentences sent a very clear signal about the consequences of this sort of offending."

Among those sentenced in Mr Ikram's court were three university students, each jailed for a year for looting £4,500 of electrical equipment and designer gear. They claimed to have found the bag of laptops, phones and clothes in Croydon during the violence. Stefan Bohan, a 24-year-old who was caring for his mother full-time, was jailed for 20 weeks for stealing a looted bag of alcohol and sweets he found in the streets.

Mr Ikram says the sentencing judges were vindicated by the Court of Appeal last October when seven out of 10 sentences were upheld. These included the four-year jail term for Jordan Blackshaw, 20, whose Facebook posting inviting rioters to Northwich, in Cheshire, was intercepted by police.

Four years for a riot that never happened seemed harsh to many people. But for Mr Ikram, the sentence reflected the seriousness of inciting public disorder on a platform that had the potential to reach "far and wide".

Mr Ikram told the audience that, in the absence of national guidelines, he had relied upon cases from the 2001 Bradford riots to help him with sentencing for riot-related affray, violent disorder and theft. "This was not completely uncharted territory ... there was legal precedent through the Court of Appeal as to what the [sentencing] response might be at the time of widespread public disorder."

Rough justice? Rioters in the dock

David King, 53, the oldest person charged in the Birmingham riots, pleaded guilty to trying to steal scratch cards. He was sentenced to 16 months in jail despite leaving the newsagent empty-handed.

Ashton Walker, a 40-year-old father and award-winning film-maker with no criminal record, went into Birmingham to film the disorder. He then joined in, stealing £200- worth of clothes from H&M, resulting in 16 months in jail.

Danielle Corns, 19, was sentenced to 10 months for briefly stealing two left-footed trainers in Wolverhampton. She entered a shop, left 10 seconds later with the trainers, and shortly afterwards left the trainers outside the same shop.

Ricky Gemmell, 18, got 16 weeks in jail for threatening a police officer, though Gemmell claimed he only called him a "dickhead" after the officer assaulted him. Gemmell and three friends had earlier raised £27,000 doing a 24-hour relay run for a cancer charity.

David Beswick, 31, from Tameside, put a 37-inch stolen television in his car. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison for handling stolen goods.

Millionaires' daughter, Laura Johnson, was jailed for two years for driving around looters, burglary and handling stolen goods. She claimed to have been acting under duress.

College student Nicholas Robinson, 23, was jailed for six months for stealing a £3.50 case of water from Lidl as he walked home from his girlfriend's house in the early hours.

Ursula Nevin, 24, of Stretford, who slept through the riots, kept a stolen pair of shorts she was given by her flatmate. She was given five months, but was later freed on appeal.

Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, was sentenced to four years for promoting "The Warrington Riots" among his 400 Facebook contacts, even though he removed the page the following day saying it had been a joke.