Suspended sentence for the 'lyrical terrorist'

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The first woman to be convicted under new terror legislation was spared a jail term after the judge said her actions were "on the margins" of what constitutes a crime. He handed down a suspended sentence.

Samina Malik, 23, who compiled a "library" of jihadi-inspired manuals and wrote poetry extolling martyrdom using the pen name "Lyrical Terrorist", was found guilty earlier this month under Section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000 which makes it a crime to have materials "likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism".

Malik, who worked in a stationery shop at Heathrow airport, was given a nine-month jail term, suspended for 18 months, and was ordered to carry out community service.

During her trial Malik was acquitted by a jury of the more serious crime of possessing material with the intention of committing an act of terrorism but was convicted under Section 58 which human rights groups say is akin to prosecuting someone for "thought crimes".

Before her arrest in October last year, Malik collected large amounts of extremist material from the internet at her family home in Southall, west London, and posted poems about seeking martyrdom and killing kafirs [non-believers]. One of the poems contained the lines "Kafirs, your time will come soon/And no one will save you from your doom". On a discarded till roll she had written: "The desire within me increases every day to go for martyrdom, the need to go increases second by second."

Passing sentence, Judge Peter Beaumont said that Malik's offence was "on the margins of what this crime concerns" and said he was taking into account her family background. "You are 23, of good character till now and from a supportive and law-abiding family who are appalled by the trouble you are in," he said.

Malik's case has generated criticism of new terror laws, particularly Section 58. The Muslim leader Muhammad Abdul Bari said. "If the police believed that Samina may have constituted a real threat to public safety then they could surely have placed her under proper surveillance and gathered evidence of actual terror-related activity as opposed to just stuff she had downloaded."

Jonathan Heawood, director of a free-speech group, English Pen, said he abhorred Malik's writing but was concerned over possible implications of her conviction. "If there were sufficient grounds for concern she would have been found guilty under more serious offences of intent or incitement," he said. "She wasn't because there wasn't the evidence."

The Crown Prosecution Service said: "Samina Malik was not prosecuted for writing poetry. She was convicted of collecting information, without reasonable excuse, of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.

"She claimed in her defence that she was 'a lyrical terrorist' who wrote poetry which 'did not mean anything', but this was rejected by the jury."

Another blow for civil liberties

This case shows the increasing encroachment of the criminal law on civil liberties since 9/11 and 7/7.

Salima Malik's conviction was secured under the widely drawn Terrorism Act 2000 which makes it an offence to be in possession of written material likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.

But in describing her actions as on the margin of the criminal law the judge appeared to be signalling that Labour's anti-terror laws trod a very fine line between protecting the public from terrorism and curbing the right to freedom of expression.

Her conviction has been seized on by civil libertarians, who have complained that Labour has brought in a number of offences that amount to a threat to the rights of free expression.

Liberty, the human rights group, says free speech is a victim of the war on terror, with offences of "encouragement" and "glorification" of terrorism threatening to make careless talk a crime.

Robert Verkaik, Law Editor