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Tommy Robinson, Anti-Muslim Activist, Is Freed on Bail in UK

LONDON — Tommy Robinson, the jailed British far-right activist backed by the former Trump aide Stephen Bannon but reviled by others who call him a violent purveyor of hate, was ordered to be freed on bail Wednesday, after challenging his conviction for contempt of court.

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Palko Karasz
, New York Times

LONDON — Tommy Robinson, the jailed British far-right activist backed by the former Trump aide Stephen Bannon but reviled by others who call him a violent purveyor of hate, was ordered to be freed on bail Wednesday, after challenging his conviction for contempt of court.

Robinson was arrested in May after he livestreamed a video from outside a criminal trial in Leeds, England, which had a news media blackout, revealing the defendants’ identities. He was sentenced to 13 months in prison for contempt of court, provoking an international outcry in far-right circles.

Wednesday, the Court of Appeal ordered his release, pending a new hearing in his case. The court questioned the speed with which he had been tried and convicted, noting that it took five hours from the time of his arrest to a conviction.

Who is Tommy Robinson?

— Anti-Muslim activist

Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon, is the founder of the English Defense League, an anti-Islam and anti-immigration movement, known for violent street protests.

Born and raised in Luton, north of London, he worked at the town’s international airport but lost that job for assaulting an off-duty police officer. He was also arrested after being accused of inciting soccer violence, as a supporter of the Luton soccer club.

“Wherever he has gone in his career he organized demonstrations that have resulted in extreme violence,” said Joe Mulhall, a senior researcher at Hope Not Hate, a London-based organization that researches hate groups.

“His divisive, anti-Muslim rhetoric has resulted in acts of violence,” he added, the most extreme of which occurred when a man, inspired by Robinson, rammed a van into a congregation of Muslims leaving a mosque in north London in January.

In 2012, Robinson was jailed for attempting to enter the United States on somebody else’s passport, and broke ties with the English Defense League.

He founded a local branch of the German anti-Islam movement, Pegida, which was known for mass demonstrations against Islam in cities in eastern Germany. He drew support from right-wing politicians in Europe, like Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom.

He contends that Muslims are disproportionately responsible for crime in Britain, particularly crimes against women and girls.

He has claimed that the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, “is busy enforcing elements of Shariah right now.”

And he says that the people presented by mainstream media as moderate Muslims are actually dangerous extremists.

— A video runs afoul of the law

Robinson was arrested outside a court in Leeds during a child sexual abuse trial. The restrictions on the news media in this case were common practice in England for trials in which judges fear that any media reports could influence the outcome.

He had livestreamed on Facebook for over an hour outside Leeds Crown Court, near the entrance, on May 25. In the broadcast, he revealed the identities of the defendants and the charges against them, and confronted some of them as they arrived in court.

This fits very much Robinson’s playbook, said Julia Ebner, a research fellow at the Center for Strategic Dialog, which works to counter extremism, in London.

“Every time he wants a campaign to go viral, he manages to trigger that with some provocative tweet or video,” Ebner said. “He knew, of course, that he was crossing the boundaries of the law, but he did it because he has to feed his fan base through provocative actions.”

Robinson and his supporters have argued that his case was about free speech. Yet, at rallies in Central London, his supporters were allowed to set up a stage and speak through loudspeakers near Britain’s center of power.

After the May livestreaming, he was arrested and pleaded guilty to contempt of court, with the judge, Geoffrey Marson, telling him his actions could have caused a mistrial.

The judge added that an aggravating feature was that Robinson had encouraged others to share the video.

Robinson attacked the judgment on a procedural basis, arguing that the court in Leeds had dealt with him summarily, as his sentence was pronounced hours after his broadcast occurred.

The Court of Appeal on Wednesday appeared to agree, saying that it had been “inappropriate to proceed immediately” after the video was removed from the internet, and pointed to other procedural errors.

“Tommy Robinson is not innocent today,” Mulhall said, “despite how his supporters are attempting already to spin this.”

Robinson previously had a nearly identical run-in with the law, after he broadcast video during the 2017 trial of four men who were later convicted of gang-raping a teenage girl. In that case, he was convicted of contempt of court, but received a suspended sentence.

— High-profile supporters

Robinson holds a prominent place among far-right groups, especially in the United States, who argued that his conviction had been in breach of free speech.

Bannon, the former chief strategist for President Donald Trump, said on a British radio talk show in July, “A lot of people say that that law is way too restrictive. It’s just free speech.”

When the journalist insisted that Robinson had broken the law, Bannon unleashed an expletive-filled tirade and said that Robinson was the “backbone of this country.”

He said, “You lose guys like Tommy Robinson you’re not going to have a country.”

In response to news of Robinson’s arrest in May, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted, “Don’t let America follow in those footsteps.”

Mulhall, of Hope Not Hate, said of Robinson, “He has become a rallying point around which people on the international far right and have gathered.”

This support has allowed Robinson, who had no regular income, to finance his activities through crowdfunding and financial help from like-minded organizations.

While alliances among nationalist groups may seem a contradiction and have failed in the past, this new form of “nationalist networking” has been a success, Ebner said.

“By partnering up internationally, they can really influence political discourse in their home countries by having such a loud voice,” she said. Robinson is “emblematic of the climate in which we are operating, the diminished power and importance of truth,” Mulhall said, adding that the campaign for Robinson was “in line in many ways with what we saw around the election of Donald Trump.”

Robinson’s release was hailed by his supporters on Twitter, including Wilders who said it was “fantastic news.”

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