Ten men who fought with far-right extremists after attending an anti-racism protest in Rotherham have been cleared of violent disorder.
The men – Asif Zaman, Mohammed Saleem, Arshad Khan, Abrar Javid, Imran Iqbal, Nasrum Rashid, Moshin Mahmood, Sadaqat Ali, Shaban Ditta and Akaash Nazir – were found not guilty at Sheffield Crown Court.
Two other men, Haseeb Alam and Mahroof Sultan, had already pleaded guilty to violent disorder but will apply to change their plea in light of the verdict.
The Guardian reports that the 12 men were attending an anti-fascist demonstration organised by Unite Against Fascism in Rotherham on 5 September 2015, a month after the racist murder of 81-year-old Mushin Ahmed in the town.
On the same day, the far-right group Britain First also staged a protest in the town and more than 800 police officers were deployed from across the UK to keep the two groups apart.
Michael Mansfield QC, defending Asif Zaman and Arshad Khan, told the court the town had been besieged by toxic fascist groups and the air was filled with fear. “The fear was not a fantasy – it was a reality,” he said.
“But there comes a point when people have to say to themselves, are we going to be humiliated to the extent that we won’t leave our homes? And is it time to show our respect and solidarity for this elderly man who was stamped to death?”
The court heard that, after the demonstration, police channelled the anti-racism protesters down Rotherham’s Wellgate road, past the William Fry pub, said to be a well-known hangout of the far right.
Paul O’Shea, prosecuting, said men outside the pub had shouted “vile racist abuse” at the Asian men as they passed. “Not exactly original but certainly offensive,” said O’Shea.
The jury was played various pieces of CCTV footage that showed a clash between the two groups in the street outside the pub before the police arrived.
The prosecution contended that while there was no doubt that “the other side” in the clash – who will be prosecuted later this month – had acted first, the actions of the defendants could not be justified as self-defence.
During the trial, the defence questioned South Yorkshire Police’s decision to send the men past the pub, described by Mansfield as a “pub for thugs”. Giving evidence, Ch Insp Richard Butterworth said he did not know the pub was associated with the far right.
“Everybody knew it, save for one person, save for, apparently, the silver commander,” said Mansfield. “I don’t know what planet he’s been on, but clearly he’s not been on this one.”
Reading a statement on behalf of the defendants outside court, Suresh Grover, director of the Monitoring Group, an anti-racism charity, said that apart from the actions of the far-right groups, their anger was reserved for South Yorkshire police and the Crown Prosecution Service.
“The prosecution evidence clearly acknowledged that far-right groups were intent on sowing community divisions … It beggars belief knowing what the police knew that the defendants were ever arrested, let alone charged and put on trial,” he said. “Instead of protecting the real victims in this case, the police and the CPS turned against them. On that day they led them towards danger and left them unprotected.
“Public confidence in South Yorkshire police is at an all time low. It can only be gained if there is a rigorous independent inquiry into their conduct and behaviour and they begin to respect local communities.”
A spokesperson for South Yorkshire police said: “Following legal advice, we have taken the decision that it would not be appropriate to provide comment on the outcome of the trial given the fact there is a second trial due to be heard in the next few weeks arising out of the same incident.
“It is critical that the case is dealt with to finality and due legal process is followed and respected for all involved following the events of 5 September 2015.”