The judge who is reviewing NI hate crime legislation was “deeply shocked” to discover that a leading Belfast Muslim he was consulting with had publicly praised Islamic State.
This week saw Judge Desmond Marrinan launch his consultation paper on the future of hate crime law in NI.
The 309-page document takes three pages to discuss the prosecution of Belfast pastor Jim McConnell in 2015. He was acquitted of making “grossly offensive” remarks about Islam when he said it was “Satanic” in a sermon.
The three pages about the pastor conclude with a review of how he might have been charged differently and, “on the more general issue”, how different legislation might prove more useful in securing convictions for inciting hatred in future.
After the acquittal, Dr Raied Al-Wazzan, treasurer of the Belfast Islamic Centre, confirmed that he had played a key role in the prosecution by making a formal complaint to the PSNI, and had no regrets about doing so.
In January 2015 – 11 months before the pastor’s acquittal – Dr Al-Wazzan hit the headlines when he praised jihadist group Islamic State’s rule in Iraq.
“Since the Islamic State took over, it has become the most peaceful city in the world,” he told BBC Talkback at the time. “These people are less evil than the Iraqi government.” Soon after he apologised and formally withdrew his remarks.
The BBC had also asked if he would draw a moral equivalence between the killers who launched a massacre at Paris’ Charlie Hebdo magazine, that same month, and coalition forces in Iraq. He replied: “What’s the difference?”
Later Dr Al-Wazzan said he meant to reply: “What do you mean by that question?”
Speaking to the News Letter about a wide range of free speech cases several months ago, Judge Marrinan expressed surprise about Dr Al-Wazzan’s comments, saying he could not believe them.
“I am certainly not aware of that,” he said. “Can you give us a link to that, because I have met this gentleman and I would be deeply shocked if he supported ISIS.”
He added: “I would like to see the full transcript of what he said, because I cannot believe from what he said to me that he supports ISIS. I don’t believe that. I would like to see all of what he said, because factually Mosul may have been quieter once the dreadful forces of ISIS took over, in the same way that I am sure that Berlin was quieter when the Nazis took over.”
Dr Al-Wazzan told the News Letter last night that his complaint against Pastor McConnell in 2015 was because that week had seen “lots of Muslims being attacked in Northern Ireland”. However, he did not expect the case to “go on”.
Regarding his IS comments, he said “definitely at that time I did not choose the right words”. However, he said he was trying to protect his relatives in Mosul who were virtual “hostages” to IS, while also protecting community relations in NI. He had condemned IS both before and after his BBC remarks, he said.
“I have had a lot of discussions about hate crime with Judge Marrinan,” he added.