By Fahad Ansari
‘This prosecution is completely inhumane to the point of being cruel.’
These were the closing submissions of Henry Blaxland QC at the Old Bailey exactly one week before his clients Sally Lane and John Letts were convicted of funding terrorism.
On 21 June 2019, Lane (57) and Letts (58) were found guilty of sending £223 to their then teenage son Jack in Syria at a time when he was a member of ISIS. The couple believed the money was to be used for food and a pair of spectacles. It was never suggested that the money was used for terrorism or that the couple suspected it might be used for terrorism. The jury convicted on the basis that it was reasonable for them to suspect that the money could be used for terrorism even if it was not.
Considering the background of the latest couple to be convicted of terrorism offences, one cannot help but feel that the Crown Prosecution Service ought to have concluded that this was not a prosecution that met its test of being in the “public interest”. Terrorists are typically feared by the public. They threaten to kill, to kidnap and to essentially terrorise a civilian population using violent means. Perhaps the only person in the world who might fear Sally Lane is suspended Foreign Office minister Mark Field and he seems sufficiently capable of instinctively warding off any threat, imaginary or otherwise.
So why was it deemed appropriate to spend £6 million pounds from the public purse to drag this organic wheat farmer and his charity fundraising wife through the courts for sending such a paltry sum of money to their then teenage son whose welfare they were concerned about? What was the public interest in subjecting them to such a humiliating process, exhausting finite police resources, court time at a time when knife crime in the capital is at an all-time high? Following the verdict, DS Kath Barnes, admitted that the couple were “not bad people” and that she had “huge empathy” with them but nevertheless justified the prosecution as a deterrent to anyone thinking of sending money to loved ones fighting in war zones.
Unfortunately, such comments betray a simplistic and naive understanding of complex family dynamics that lead to parents and siblings maintaining contact with loved ones with a view to trying to dissuade them from the path they are on. If such prosecutions and convictions were effective deterrents to future would-be offenders, then presumably there would be fewer prosecutions for this offence than there have been. But it is not the case. In May 2015, teenager Majdi Shajira was convicted of funding terrorism for attempting to send a pair of trainers to his brother in Syria a year earlier. In February this year, Salim Wakil was convicted of transferring £2500 to his teenage sister in Syria which she said told him she needed to pay smugglers to help her escape from Syria. All of these individuals share the same sentiment expressed by Sally Lane and John Letts outside of the Old Bailey following their sentence: “The heavy price we paid today is an indicator of the love we have for our children. We are committed to help Jack return home.”
The convictions of Sally Lane and John Letts will add to the statistics relied upon by the government to justify the narrative that Britain has a serious problem with terrorism and that more powers are needed to keep us safe. While there are clearly those within Britain and abroad who seek to harm us, wasting resources on family members sending small sums of money for personal assistance to loved ones in a desperate attempt to try to lure them home is a clearly counterproductive strategy. Not only does it criminalise the innocent thereby artificially inflating terrorism statistics but by casting the net so wide, the security services and the police are losing sight of those who actual pose a threat to this country. A report last year by the Intelligence and Security Committee concluded that Manchester bomber Salman Abedi slipped through the net despite concerns about his links to extremism. Reports emerging from the ongoing inquest into the London Bridge terror attacks reveal that the family of one of the dead attackers Khuram Butt reported him to the anti-terror police 18 months earlier, but the warnings went unheeded. Butt’s own brother Saad Butt worked for the government’s widely discredited counter-extremism programme PREVENT but also failed to report him to anti-terror police despite his own concerns.
It is emblematic of the inherent problems with PREVENT that while some of its workers allowed the likes of Butt and Abedi to evade its tentacles, others facilitated the prosecution of Sally Lane and John Letts. Since learning of their son’s presence in Syria, Lane and Letts cooperated fully with the police repeatedly asking them for help. It has been reported that the ‘counter-extremism’ expert Hanif Qadir who was advising the family was reporting their conversations directly back to counter-terrorism police and later became a witness for the prosecution. John Letts could not contain his frustration after the conviction: “I can’t see how anyone can trust the police under the PREVENT programme … the depth of betrayal by these ‘counter-extremism experts’ and the police cannot be emphasised enough.” Letts feelings of anger echo those expressed by another parent whose cooperation with the police to lure her own son home from Syria resulted in his successful prosecution.
In 2014, Majida Sarwar said she felt betrayed by the police and the courts after being assured by the police that if she helped to persuade her son Yusuf to return home from Syria, they would provide him with the help he needed. It was Mrs Sarwar who first alerted the authorities to her son’s departure for Syria after finding his farewell note. Despite only spending a few weeks inside Syria in 2013 where he went to fight against the Assad regime, Sarwar (then 22) received a 12 year prison sentence. Sentencing judge Michael Topolski QC’s lavish praise for Mrs Sarwar’s “extraordinarily brave conduct” meant little to her as she told the BBC that if she had known that it would result in her son’s incarceration, she would never have told the police about the letter: “The police say, ‘mothers come forward’, you can trust us, we will help. But now they will see what happened to my son. What kind of person would go to the police if they think their son will get 12 years in prison? Nobody wants to do that. I did not want that.”
Rather than act as a deterrent measure, prosecuting families such as the Letts who have cooperated with the police and counter-extremism agencies to try and bring their loved one’s home could lead to even greater suspicion and mistrust of the authorities who are increasingly being perceived as imposing a form of collective punishment on families in this position. This can only serve to undermine genuine counter-terrorism measures and exhaust even more resources prosecuting innocent members of the public while allowing real terrorists to operate with impunity.
The Letts case, according to social media comments also appears to expose a racial or religious bias within the judicial system when it comes to sentencing. Sally Lane and John Letts received a 15-month suspended sentence due to what the judge described as the “special circumstances of the case.” Earlier this year, Salim Wakil was sentenced to 30 months in prison despite the sentencing judge accepting that he suffered from mental health problems, was ““undoubtedly naive”, “not in any sense himself supportive of a terrorism cause” and “held a genuine desire” to steer his sister away from danger. For Judge Rebecca Poulet QC defended her decision claiming that she was bound by the sentencing guidelines. It is understood that in the light of the Letts decision, Wakil will be appealing his own sentence.
The idea that courts are imposing a ‘Muslim enhancement’ on terrorism sentences is not a new concern amongst many commentators and they point to dozens of case studies. For example , although each case is to be judged on its merits many people have pointed out the difference in treatment between Jack Letts and Shamima Begum , the former did not have his citizenship revoked whereas the latter did in very robust terms by the Home Secretary. This suspicion will only fuel perceptions of a twin-track system of justice in place in the UK today.
The Letts do not deserve the stigma of being known as convicted terrorists, let alone spend any time in prison. But neither does Salim Wakil whose prosecution was equally inhumane to the point of being cruel.
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)