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British Court Throws Out Convictions of Five Muslims

In a Landmark decision, a three judge Court of Appeal panel, headed by the country's most senior judge, overturned Wednesday the convictions of five young British Muslim men who were jailed last July for having obtained information on terrorism from the internet. For VOA, Tom Rivers in London reports.

The young men aged between 20 and 22 were serving sentences of two to three years for possessing articles for terrorist purposes under the British Terrorism Act of 2002.

What they had done was view extremist material widely available on the internet. What became crucial to the judges was the intention of those viewing the material.

Lord Chief Justice Nicholas Phillips concluded there was no proof of terrorist intent. With that, the five were freed and their convictions quashed. One of those released was Akbar Butt. "At the moment I do not to say much. I just want to say I am thankful to be here and I am happy with the decision," he said.

Lawyers for the men maintained their clients were jailed for thought crimes and they said this case will have an important impact on other cases in the pipeline. Imran Khan, a lawyer for one of the men, Aitzaz Zafar, said the decision was clear that the possession of extremist material in and of itself was not a crime.

"Of course in the current climate, eveyrone has got to be careful of what they are looking at but importantly now people cannot be prosecuted and sent to prison simply for having something in their possession without any intention of that item being used for any act of terrorism," he said.

Khan adds, British society must not criminalize people for simply looking at material, whether it is good or bad.

At the time they were arrested four of the men were students at Bradford University in northern England while the other was a high school student from the east end of London.

They all accepted the fact that they had downloaded the material but they said they were simply researching Islam.

Britain's Home Office is now studying the important judgement. Prosecutors have seven days to decide whether they wish to appeal the ruling.