When thoughts become a crime

In George Orwell’s dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, a government attempts to control not only the speech and actions, but also the thoughts of its subjects, labeling disapproved thoughts with the term thoughtcrime or, in Newspeak, “crimethink”. (Wikipedia, 2008).

Might this situation morph into reality? No, one might have thought (pun not intended) that it wouldn’t, after all we are living in a world of democracies, of rule of law, Malaysia included.

According to this news report, five young British Muslim men of Pakistani descent, Irfan Raja, Awaab Iqbal, Aitzaz Zafar, Usman Malik and Akbar Butt were jailed for between two and three years each by the Old Bailey of the United Kingdom for downloading and sharing extremist terrorism-related material, in what was one of the first cases of its kind to be prosecuted under Britain’s notorious Terrorism Act 2000, specifically Section 57(1) which states “A person commits an offence if he possesses an article in circumstances which give rise to a reasonable suspicion that his possession is for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism.” Originally these men were charged under Section 58 of the same Act, relating to collection of terrorist material, however, this was amended to Section 57.

What “articles” here in Section 57 is left unexplained by the Act. It has been left to the United Kingdom authorities themselves to interpret, and they have interpreted such freely, no wonder then, giving rise to criticism, especially from within the UK Muslim community, that the section is being abused to persecute young Muslim men without any clear evidence as to their involvement in terrorist activities.

These five men however, were freed recently by the British Court of Appeal. Reading the judgement of Lord Phillips, it is clear that the case turned on the meaning of the words “possession for a purpose connected with the commission of an act of terror”. The prosecution in the case referred to a source of the purpose for which the Section in question was enacted, and gave such scenarios such as bombs, explosive material, etc and the need to prevent possession of such material to prevent such occurrences from happening. However, questions arose as to wither extremist literature fell under the scope of this Section of the Act. One imagines a hundred different reasons why extremist literature, itself a controversial form, might be gathered, terrorism not being one of them. Studies, research etc, can be purposes for which this kind of literature might be kept for, might they?

Ruling that literature did not fall within the scope of the Section, Lord Phillips does everyone, researchers and academicians in particular, a favour. Were merely the possession of literature of any kind, be it “extremist”, obscene or political, etc a crime, then society would not be quite far from the situation inspired by George Orwell’s dytopian novel above. Thankfully, some sanity is left in this world as respect for one of the fundamental human rights, the right to think freely, if not speak freely, is respected and upheld in the rush to prosecute terror.