Earlier this year, I wrote in these pages of the success of a ground-breaking litigation strategy that we used to secure the prosecution of the online troll Nicholas Nelson.
Nelson, who lives in Cambridgeshire and was a vigorous supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, hid behind an anonymous Twitter account to harass the Oscar-nominated Jewish writer Lee Kern and communications strategist Joanne Bell. The account called for another Holocaust, called Mr Kern “Shylock”, spoke of Jews being used for shooting practice, called Jewish women whores, shared deranged sexual fantasies involving Hitler, and glorified the antisemitic genocidal terror organisation, Hamas.
As I wrote in January, Nelson believed he could get away with it all by hiding behind his anonymity. But just as ordinary people would be revolted by sustained, racist harassment by an anonymous assailant of a victim in the street or over the telephone, so should we all be disgusted by the same behaviour when it happens online.
After Mr Kern contacted us, we collaborated with the esteemed solicitor Mark Lewis to pioneer a legal technique that would result in Nelson being unmasked — the first time an antisemitic troll has been identified in this way — and we were able to secure a prosecution. Seeing the writing on the wall, Nelson pleaded guilty to racially aggravated harassment and to sending an electronic communication with intent to cause distress or anxiety.
It emerged that he had committed similar offences in the past, having previously sent abusive messages to two Jewish women Labour MPs, branding one a “vile useless c***” and the other a “traitor” who should “end yourself”. He then sent further offensive communications to two other Labour MPs, both of whom have been active campaigners against antisemitism. Astonishingly, it then transpired that he had harassed Mr Kern apparently whilst serving suspended sentences for those previous offences.
In view of this, it was reasonable to assume a firm sentence would be forthcoming following this latest conviction. Not only are the offences serious, but evidently the previous suspended sentences had failed to deter Nelson from continuing his campaign of harassment. Something more draconian was both appropriate and expected.
Instead, in March, Judge Charles Gratwicke gave Nelson just another suspended sentence, and he walked out of the courtroom effectively a free man.
“Why,” asked Mr Kern in justified disbelief, “are antisemitic hate crimes not deemed as criminal as those of other forms of racism? What exactly does it take for a person found guilty of repeated racially motivated crimes against Jews to actually go to prison?”
We immediately appealed to the Attorney General’s Office, which has the power to refer sentences for certain offences, considered to be unduly lenient, to the Court of Appeal.
The Solicitor General has now confirmed to us that his office is doing just that. Alex Chalk QC MP observed that this case involved persistent offending against several victims (Mr Kern wasn’t alone) over a sustained period, which surely demanded not only a stronger sentence but arguably consecutive sentences.
Mr Chalk also noted the obvious failure of the previous sentences to deter Nelson and thus the unsuitability of yet another suspended sentence.
Finally, he highlighted the public interest in “abuse, harassment and antisemitism online.” After all, the sentence was not just an insult to the direct victims — and the Jewish community as a whole — but to all those who suffer at the fingers of trolls on social media.
This long and winding case is an example of how every stage of the criminal justice system can present a challenge to victims. Sometimes it’s a struggle to convince the police to investigate; at other times the difficulty lies with the Crown Prosecution Service. As this case shows, even when an investigation and prosecution have taken place, some judges can still fail to grasp the gravity of a crime. Is it any wonder that our polling last year showed, for the first time, that a majority of British Jews do not feel that any of the three branches of the justice system do enough to protect them?
We are grateful to the Solicitor General for taking up this matter, which will go to the Court of Appeal in the coming months and where we hope that this saga will end in an outcome that delivers justice for the victims of this antisemitic abuser.
Stephen Silverman is Director of Investigations and Enforcement at Campaign Against Antisemitism