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Two British men in their early twenties have each been sentenced to four years imprisonment for inciting violence on Facebook. The sentences are among the first following a series of arrests in the wake of riots which recently spread across the UK.
Jordan Blackshaw, 20, from Cheshire and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, from Warrington, both in northwest England, were imprisoned after setting up Facebook pages calling for unrest in their home towns.
Blackshaw’s page, “Smash Down Northwich Town”, encouraged people to gather “behind maccies” — believed to be the McDonald’s restaurant in Northwich town centre.
Sutcliffe-Keenan’s creation, “Let’s Have a Riot in Latchford”, called for people to riot the following day.
Prosecutor Martin McRobb argued that the two men’s pages had created “significant panic and revulsion” amongst local people.
Police have been quick to paint the sentences as an example of the attitude authorities will be taking to anyone who engages in activities which could potentially cause civil unrest.
“The sentences passed down today recognise how technology can be abused to incite criminal activity and sends a strong message to potential troublemakers,” Phil Thompson, Cheshire Police Assistant Chief Constable, said.
“Anyone who seeks to undermine that will face the full force of the law,” he added.
“Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe independently and from the safety of their homes may have thought that it would be acceptable to set up a Facebook page to incite others to take part in disorders in Cheshire,” said McRobb. “They were wrong.”
Others feel, however, that the sentences may have been too harsh.
The BBC has quoted Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake as saying that the sentences “should be about restorative justice” not retribution. Brake also felt that the sentences would have been far less severe had Blackshaw and Sutcliffe-Keenan committed the same offences at any other time.
Among those who have been most critical of the sentences handed down are advocates of prison reform.
Speaking to The Times, Prison Reform Trust Director Juliet Lyon said there is “a real risk that in a justice system operating under exceptional pressure that due process, proportionality and fairness could be sacrificed in a rush to deterrent sentencing”.
The rioting, which saw five people killed, led to British Prime Minister David Cameron calling for police and intelligence authorities to have the authority to shut down social networks such as Twitter and Facebook in times of emergency.
While social networking tools like Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger were implicated in inciting the violence, they were also used for good. A variety of groups sprung up, doing everything from organising cleanups and raising funds for those who lost property to assisting police in identifying those involved in looting and vandalism which accompanied the riots.