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IT MAY HAVE BEEN A VICTORY FOR FREE SPEECH, BUT WHY DID BREAKFAST INSULT OF MUSLIM’S FAITH CASE EVER COME TO COURT? (uk) December 16, 2009

Posted by cristobalgomez in Uncategorized.
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A blow for free speech was struck by the courts yesterday as the case against two Christian hoteliers accused of insulting a Muslim guest was thrown out.

10/12/2009- Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang were hauled into the dock after a white British convert to Islam complained they had called the prophet Mohammed ‘a warlord’ and told her that Muslim women were oppressed. They saw their family-run business brought to its knees as they found themselves at the centre of an unprecedented investigation into what was deemed a religiously aggravated hate crime against 60-year-old Ericka Tazi. But yesterday, after a prosecution costing some £20,000, their names were cleared as a judge said the case flew in the face of the right to freedom of religious expression. Christian groups said the decision to try the Vogelenzangs meant the couple faced becoming convicted criminals for standing up for their beliefs. Their barrister, Hugh Tomlinson QC, told Liverpool Magistrates’ Court: ‘It is most unfortunate that so much time and public money has been devoted to this discussion about religion.’ District Judge Richard Clancy told him: ‘You raise the question of free speech, and the European Union gives all of us a right to religious freedom. People have gone to some length to preserve that integrity.’ Afterwards Mrs Vogelenzang, 54, said: ‘We are looking forward to rebuilding our business and getting on with our lives. As Christmas approaches, we wish everybody peace and goodwill.’ One (highly paid) senior Crown prosecutor. Two policemen – including a detective chief inspector, no less – in court to testify against the accused. Behind them a team of six officers – yes, six – from the Merseyside force’s specialist hate crime unit, assigned to investigate Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang. Not to mention a QC for the defendants, and thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money. And for what?

Well, Deputy District Judge Richard Clancy must have been asking himself that question. And it didn’t take him very long to reach an answer. In fact, after sitting through two days’ evidence he didn’t even retire to consider his verdict. He dismissed the case against the Vogelenzangs, proprietors of The Bounty House Hotel in Aintree. Finally, it seems, common sense had prevailed. The prosecution of the case in question, we had been assured all along, was in the public interest. The police even held a press briefing earlier this week before proceedings got under way to explain why. Words like ‘ bigotry’ and ‘intolerance’ were used to justify this prosecution. The truth is, or course, that the principle at the heart of this deeply worrying saga was quite simply freedom of speech – and specifically this couple’s right to express their views on religion, whatever people may think of them. To recap: Ericka Tazi, 60, a white British-born grandmother was staying at the couple’s hotel while having medical treatment at a local hospital. She was also a recent Muslim convert. On the last day of her stay, Mrs Tazi decided to wear a hijab and ankle-length gown to breakfast. She was subjected, it was alleged, to a tirade from Mr Vogelenzang, 53, and his 54-year- old wife, who are both Christians. They were said to have called the prophet Mohammed a warlord and told Mrs Tazi she was living in bondage. The Vogelenzangs might have been intimidating; quite possibly even rude. But were they really guilty of anything more than that? Merseyside Police – and the Crown Prosecution Service – obviously thought so after Mrs Tazi made an official complaint about the incident in March. Given the pernicious culture of political correctness which now seems to pervade so much of British life – particularly our justice system – perhaps we should not be too surprised.

Thus an argument about religion over bacon and eggs in the dining room of the Vogelenzangs’ hotel ended up, nearly nine months later, coming before Deputy District Judge Richard Clancy – whipping up a storm of controversy in the process. Scores of supporters from the Christian Institute gathered outside the courthouse singing hymns and waving placards in support of the couple. Their organisation (whose purpose is the ‘furtherance and promotion of the Christian religion in the United Kingdom and elsewhere’) has thousands of members in Britain. Accounts for the organisation reveal that last year alone it received nearly £1.5million – almost entirely through donations. The group funded the Vogelenzangs’ legal expenses, including the hiring of a barrister to represent them. Certainly those supporters were celebrating last night after the law came down on the side of Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang, not on that of Ericka Tazi and Merseyside Police. Judge Clancy said the European Union gave everyone the right to religious freedom and concluded: ‘I’m not satisfied on the facts that this case has been made out.’ He had also pointed out that he believed both parties gave an honest recollection of what happened, although he criticised Mrs Tazi, saying her profuse swearing while staying at the hotel conflicted with her demure demeanour in court. The Vogelenzangs were charged with a religiously aggravated public order offence under one of Labour’s first hate crime laws. Under the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act Labour changed the 1986 Public Order Act so that harassment or threat became a new kind of crime if motivated by religious or racial prejudice. The Vogelenzangs could have received a maximum jail sentence of six months.

So what do we know about the parties involved?
Mrs Tazi, a former Roman Catholic and a mother of two sons from a previous relationship, married a Muslim decorator called Mohammed three years ago, but she only converted to Islam 12 months ago. Her Islamic name is Aicha. The couple live in a terrace house in Warrington, Cheshire, and attend Warrington Mosque. She has a programme in her computer that broadcasts the Muslim call to prayer. Mrs Tazi spoke to the Mail before the case came to court. She says that she had tried ‘many other religions’ before turning to Islam. ‘Can’t people see that beneath these robes I’m just a normal English girl? I’m just Ericka, a harmless pensioner. You wouldn’t look twice at me if you saw me wearing so-called Western clothes. I was a hippy once. I was also a big Beatles fan. But I’ve found religion. It’s really important to me. ‘I’m not extremist or anything like that. What did they [the Vogelenzangs] think, that I was a suicide bomber because of my robes? ‘I only took up the Muslim faith a year ago. And it had nothing to do with my husband. Although he was born into the Muslim faith, he is as English as I am. He goes round in jeans and T-shirts and has even got a season ticket for Everton. I arrived at the Muslim faith quite independently.’ She insists she did not put on the hijab, as the Vogelenzangs’ barrister claimed, to deliberately provoke them. Mrs Tazi, who suffers from the chronic pain condition fibromyalgia, had been attending a clinic at Walton Neurological Centre. ‘As it came to my last day,’ she says, ‘I said to my doctor I was feeling confident enough to wear my hijab, and he said I should “go for it”. ‘When I walked downstairs that morning I felt great, but for some reason it provoked this outpouring of hate. I couldn’t believe it. ‘They knew I was a Muslim. They just hadn’t seen me in Muslim dress up until then, but I don’t know why they reacted in the way they did.’ Later that same day she reported the matter to the police. She added: ‘There is so much hate in this country. I’m worried that I’ll be targeted for coming forward.’ She says she has already become a hate figure for at least one Right-wing extremist group which has featured her on its website.

Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang have, some might say, fared even worse – despite winning the case. The couple, of Dutch extraction, are members of the Bootle Christian Fellowship – hence the involvement of the Christian Institute. They have run the nine-bedroom hotel (which charges £92 a night) for the past six years. They are now facing financial ruin. The hospital where Mrs Tazi was treated routinely referred outpatients to stay at the hotel. But when management found out about the court case, they decided they could no longer recommend the Bounty House, leading to the catastrophic drop in bookings. After the case was brought, a number of Church leaders in Liverpool wrote to Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, calling for the case to be dropped. What Mrs Tazi was probably unaware of is that the Vogelenzangs had adopted five children, of whom one was a Muslim, and had put their names forward to foster other Muslim youngsters. Mike Judge, a spokesman for the Christian Institute, said: ‘Important issues of religious freedom and free speech were at stake in this case. ‘We have detected a worrying tendency in public bodies to misapply the law in a way that seems to sideline Christianity more than other faiths. ‘People see the police standing by when Muslim demonstrators take to the streets in this country holding some pretty bloodthirsty placards, but at the same time come down hard on two Christians having a debate over breakfast.’ Mr Judge welcomed the swift dismissal of the case but added: ‘It should never have come to court.’ Mrs Tazi was not in court yesterday, and at her home in Warrington, Cheshire, her family said they had no comment. However, local Muslims who attended the hearing were dismayed. A woman student from Liverpool University, who would not give her name, said: ‘People will think they can say whatever they want to Muslims after this.’ Sharon King, a spokesman for the Crown Prosecution said: ‘I think we would pursue a case like this again if a similar incident was to arise in the future. It is in the public interest that incidents like this are properly investigated. We felt there was sufficient evidence in this instance to support a prosecution.’ Not everyone agrees with her it seems.
© The Daily Mail

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