Freed: the students who downloaded extremist material

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The Independent Online

Five Muslim students who were said to have become "intoxicated" by extremist propaganda were freed yesterday after the Court of Appeal declared their convictions unsound. In a case described as a victory for the Muslim community, the senior judges declared it had not been proved that they had planned to use downloaded material in an act of terrorism.

The Old Bailey heard last year that the four Bradford University students were arrested after the fifth defendant, schoolboy Mohammed Irfan Raja, ran away from home, leaving a note for his parents to say he was going to fight abroad and would see them in heaven. They were obsessed with jihadi websites and had all planned to go to Pakistan to train to fight in Afghanistan, potentially against British soldiers, the prosecution claimed.

But the young men all denied having extremist views. The material they had downloaded from internet sites was not intended to encourage terrorism or martyrdom but simply to research ideology. They were nevertheless convicted and given sentences ranging from two to three years.

But yesterday, Lord Chief Justice Lord Phillips, sitting with Mr Justice Owen and Mr Justice Bean, quashed their convictions and ordered their release. "We do not consider that it was made plain to the jury... that the case that the appellants had to face was that they possessed the extremist material for use in the future to incite the commission of terrorist acts. We doubt whether the evidence supported such a case," said Lord Phillips.

Imran Khan, solicitor for Aitzaz Zafar, 21, said the judgment had made it absolutely clear that possession of material must be for intent to use it unlawfully. "My client is over the moon. He says it is surreal and he cannot see why he has spent the past two years in prison for looking at material which he had no intention of using for terrorism. Young people should not be frightened of exploring their world."

Asked if the judgment might send out the wrong message, Mr Khan said: "There will always be people out there with wrong intentions, but we must not criminalise people for simply looking at material, whether it is good or bad." He asked that the Government look carefully at the judgment and reconsider the current legislation, saying: "This is a good judgment for the Muslim community and the community at large." Usman Ahmed Malik's solicitor, Saghir Hussein, said: "This is a landmark judgment in a test case over the innocent possession of materials."

Raja, now 20, of Ilford, east London, was serving two years in youth detention, while Zafar, of Rochdale, Lancashire, and Awaab Iqbal, 20, of Bradford, had been given three years' detention. Malik, 22, of Bradford, west Yorkshire was jailed for three years while Akbar Butt, 21, of Southall, west London, was given 27 months' detention.

On 24 July last year, the five men were convicted of possessing articles for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism, contrary to section 57 of the Terrorism Act 2000. Lord Phillips said yesterday: "Difficult questions of interpretation have been raised in this case."