A legal appeal in London Wednesday by British far-right activist Tommy Robinson against a jail sentence for breaking basic rules of court reporting seems an unlikely issue to roil the American right.
The 35-year-old anti-Islam campaigner-turned-citizen journalist has already pleaded guilty to the contempt of court charge for which he is currently serving 13 months.
Robinson admitted in May that he broke reporting restrictions around an ongoing child molestation trial in Leeds, England, by discussing the case in an hour-long Facebook Live video from outside the court. His actions risked collapsing the trial, the sentencing judge said.
Yet despite this, Robinson’s case has become the focal point of an extraordinary international campaign, as far-right and populist movements across the West unite behind the #FreeTommy hashtag. Observers say Robinson’s emergence as an international cause celebre for the far-right show the extent of the deepening cross-border ties between populist anti-Islam movements, as they rally behind the figurehead of Robinson to build momentum.
“Tommy Robinson … has acted as a lightning rod for an international coterie of far-right, anti-Muslim activists and extremists,” said Nick Ryan, spokesman for British anti-racism group Hope not Hate.
“There seems a clear plan and network of individuals seeking to use him to advance their plans and to pressure our authorities to ameliorate his sentence. This is an outrageous state of affairs.”
The level of support from the United States, in particular, for a figure from the margins of British politics, has been remarkable.
Robinson, the pseudonym of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, is a longstanding agitator on Britain’s far-right, with a number of criminal convictions, including for violence. He co-founded the English Defence League, a far-right street movement which has organized violent demonstrations against Islamic immigrants in the U.K., before leaving the group and styling himself a citizen journalist and campaigner against Islamic extremism.
His actions outside the courthouse in Leeds were his second strike for the same offence; he had been spared jail on similar charges the previous year on the basis that he didn’t reoffend.
Yet his cause has been taken up, championed and amplified by high-profile American right-wing agitators such as Alex Jones, Mike Cernovich and Ann Coulter, messages of support have been tweeted by figures including Donald Trump Jr. and Roseanne Barr. The American defenders of Robinson have typically framed his case as a freedom of speech issue, and the activist as a political prisoner who faces the threat of violence from Muslim inmates — rather than as a clear-cut case of contempt of court as it is widely viewed in the U.K.
One analysis by Hope not Hate found that more than a third of the #FreeTommy tweets came from the United States, along with about 10 percent of signatures on a Change.org petition calling for his release.
And the support runs deeper than retweets and signatures. According to a Reuters report Sunday, the U.S.’s Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, raised the issue of Robinson’s imprisonment with Britain’s ambassador to the U.S. The agency later reported that Brownback’s intervention followed lobbying by figures connected to the right-wing website Breitbart.
The same day, Steve Bannon — the former Breitbart chairman and one-time White House chief strategist — underlined the transatlantic support for Robinson’s cause, when he made a fiery defense of the activist on a London radio show. When another panelist pointed out Robinson had broken the law, Bannon replied: “A lot of people would say that law is very restrictive.” The panelist then claimed that Bannon berated him once the microphones were off: “You fucking liberal elite. Tommy Robinson is the backbone of this country.”
That exchange came the day after thousands of Robinson’s supporters marched in a demonstration through central London. The rally, which merged with a pro-Trump march, was funded by American neocon think tank the Middle East Foundation, which said it was supporting his cause through a project which backed activists, journalists, and politicians who faced legal problems as a result of their opposition to Islamism.
The march also highlighted Robinson’s support from the European far-right, where he has developed close ties to the youth-focused Identitarian movement, and has the vigorous support of the far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who spoke via video-link after U.K. authorities denied him police protection to appear at the event.
Robinson’s appeal against his sentence Wednesday is ongoing, but regardless of the outcome, observers say his case has served an important role for international far-right movements in rallying support for their causes, regardless of their understanding of the specifics of the case. They’re determined to push back.
“Lennon is a far-right extremist with convictions for fraud, violence and contempt of court who needs to do his time for imperiling a major court case,” said Ryan. “These attempts to sway our legal system and the paths of justice must not prevail.”
Cover image: Tommy Robinson, former leader of the English Defence League is escorted by the police as supporters of far-right and anti-Islamic English Defence League (EDL) gather in central London to protest against Islam and Islamic terrorism in the wake of the recent Westminster terror attack, on April 01, 2017 in London, England. (Wiktor Szymanowicz / Barcroft Im / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)