Visitors to extremist websites face prosecution

Visitors to websites promoting terrorism can now be charged with supporting terrorism, but a strong evidence of criminal intent is required for conviction.

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ABU DHABI // Visitors to websites that promote terrorism - many of which are accessible in the country - can now be charged with supporting terrorism, but a strong evidence of criminal intent is required for conviction, according to top state security judges. Chief Justice Shehab al Hammadi, who presides over all state security cases at the Federal Supreme Court, said the Ministry of Justice had, in convicting six people of operating a terror organisation in the UAE in April, ruled that simply viewing such sites could be considered a crime. He said that even if a website is not blocked, convictions can still be obtained if prosecutors can show a defendant had "criminal intentions" in visiting them. Examples, he added, included downloading extremist content from the websites or forwarding links on to friends. "These websites are available for everyone and it is almost impossible to block them, just like it is difficult to monitor all satellite channels. But when a person visits them and spreads their news or content among his or her acquaintances, that is considered like a crime they witnessed or committed," Chief Justice al Hammadi said. The National has found that dozens of such web pages are accessible in the UAE. Experts say their glorification of "holy war" can influence vulnerable young people. Extremist content on such websites includes nasheeds (singing and chanting) calling for violence, often accompanied by footage of al Qa'eda operations against the US military. Links and downloadable videos are posted by members who mostly go by names such as "war lion", "mujahid" and "fearless warrior". Other members often post supporting comments and pictures of members of terrorist groups. Dr Ahmed Alomosh, chairman of the sociology department at the University of Sharjah, said such religious songs and motivational materials are powerful "mobilisation" tools, but their effect is short-term and restricted to certain individuals because of the language and references they use. "They carry references to a glorious past that tug at the heartstrings of impressionable adherents," he said. The recent sentencing of five Emirati men and one Afghan for terrorism-related offences was the first case to put the website ruling to the test, as two defendants were charged with surfing "jihadi websites". They confessed to downloading material that included suicide operations in Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan as well as spreading news of "jihad", but told prosecutors they did not mean to propagate them. The court found they also downloaded pornography, music and Western films, which it considered evidence that the men were not extremists. The court also found the videos they downloaded were popular media "broadcast on satellite channels". The two men were acquitted because of "the absence of criminal intention". "Although [SA, 18] downloaded some of [these suicide operation videos] and [YM, 31] showed the jihadi websites to his friends in his house, there is no evidence in the court records that they did that with the intention of glorifying suicide operations - only because their friends requested that from them," Justice Falah al Hajeri of the Federal Supreme Court ruled. Two other defendants, Rashid Dawood, 34, and Abdullah Hassan, 27, were found guilty of "promoting jihadi groups" as well as distributing military training videos. They were sentenced to one year in jail for their membership in the jihadist organisation they set up. All of the six convicted were sentenced to three years in prison for financially supporting a terrorist organisation. The verdicts cannot be appealed. Dr Ali Ahmed al Mannaei, the attorney who represented the Emirati defendants in the trial, argued at the time his defendants should not be accused of a crime for visiting those websites because they were not blocked. hhassan@thenational.ae