A British neo-Nazi who downloaded bomb-making instructions along with tens of thousands of extremist documents was spared jail by a judge who ordered him to read classic English literature instead.
The unorthodox sentence was slammed by UK anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate, which labelled it lenient, and said it failed to take the threat of far-right terrorism seriously.
Nick Lowles, the group’s CEO, called on Britain’s Attorney General to review the sentence.
“A suspended sentence and a suggested reading list of English classics for a terror conviction would be laughable if it weren't so serious,” he said.
"This judge is sending a message that violent right wing extremists may be treated leniently by the courts.”
Ben John, a 21-year-old from Lincoln, was convicted by a jury last month of possessing information likely to be useful for preparing an act of terror. The charge stemmed from a hoard of computer documents found in John’s student accommodation in Leicester during a police raid in January 2020, which included tens of thousands of white supremacist and anti-Semitic texts, and at least seven giving instructions on how to make bombs.
The charge carried a maximum jail sentence of 15 years. But in sentencing him at Leicester crown court, Judge Timothy Spencer QC described his actions as “an act of teenage folly” that were likely to be an isolated incident, the Leicester Mercury reported.
He made John promise to stop delving into far-right material, then told him to read English classics instead, and report back to court in January to be tested on what he had read.
“Have you read Dickens? Austen? Start with Pride and Prejudice and Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Think about Hardy. Think about Trollope,” said the judge.
“On 4 January you will tell me what you have read and I will test you on it. I will test you and if I think you are [lying to] me you will suffer.” He told John's lawyer that his client had “by the skin of his teeth avoided imprisonment."
The judge handed down a two-year jail sentence – suspended for two years – plus a further year on licence, monitored by the probation service.
John was also given a five-year Serious Crime Prevention Order requiring him to remain in contact with police and let them monitor his online activity, as well as up to 30 days on an intervention programme.
Earlier, a prosecutor had told the court that John had failed to heed prior warnings about his growing radicalisation. He had initially been identified as a potential extremism risk shortly after turning 18, leading to meetings with officers from the government’s Prevent counter-extremism programme.
But only months later, he wrote a letter claiming to be part of "The Lincoln Fascist Underground", railing against gay people and immigrants, prompting further intervention from Prevent.
Despite this, he went on to download tens of thousands of documents of extremist material, much of it relating to Nazi and fascist ideology, and some connected to a Satanist organisation. One of the hard drives was found hidden inside a sock when police officers searched his home.
Lincolnshore police said in a statement on Tuesday that John, who it described as a “white [supremacist] with a neo-Nazi ideology,” had become radicalised online, where he obtained “extremely dangerous” terrorist material.
“This was a young man who could be anyone’s son, studying at university, and living one life in public, while conducting another in private,” said Detective Inspector James Manning.
“He possessed a wealth of National Socialist and anti-Semitic material which indicated a fascination and belief in a white supremacist ideology along with support for an extreme Satanic group which is increasingly of concern for law enforcement agencies.”
Lowles, of Hope Not Hate, said the case was the latest example of judges ”not taking far right terrorism seriously,” following the sentencing in November of 18-year-old neo-Nazi Harry Vaughan, who had promoted the now-banned white supremacist terror group Sonnenkrieg Division online.
Vaughan, who attended a top grammar school in London, pleaded guilty to 12 counts of possessing documents useful to a terrorist, one count of encouraging terrorism, and one of disseminating terrorist publications, as well as two counts of possessing indecent images, relating to videos showing young boys being raped. He was sentenced to two years detention in a young offenders' institution, suspended for two years.
"These sorts of lenient sentences risk encouraging other young people to access and share terrorist and extremist content because they will not fear the repercussions of their actions,” said Lowles.