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UK court to review ‘unduly lenient’ sentence of neo-Nazi told to read classics

After anti-racism petition, AG refers case of Ben John, who was ordered to study Dickens, Austen, as punishment for downloading white supremacist material and bomb-making plans

A case containing 17th century editions of plays attributed to William Shakespeare at the Boston Public Library, in Boston, Massachusetts, October 11, 2016.  (Steven Senne/AP)
A case containing 17th century editions of plays attributed to William Shakespeare at the Boston Public Library, in Boston, Massachusetts, October 11, 2016. (Steven Senne/AP)

The British attorney-general has told the country’s Court of Appeal to review the sentencing of a right-wing extremist who was convicted of a terrorism offense and ordered to read classic literature as a punishment, the BBC reported Wednesday.

Though Ben John, 21, was also given two years’ suspended jail time, the office of Attorney General Suella Braverman said in a statement the ruling was “unduly lenient.”

“It is now for the court to decide whether to increase the sentence,” a spokesperson said according to the report.

An anti-racism group in the UK had petitioned the attorney general with a call to re-sentence John, who was ordered last month to read classical literature in retribution for downloading almost 70,000 white supremacist documents and bomb-making instructions.

John avoided prison “by the skin of his teeth,” Judge Timothy Spencer of the Leicester Crown Court said during a sentencing hearing August 31, instead handing him the suspended prison sentence.

Spencer said John’s crime was likely to be an isolated “act of teenage folly” and ordered him to reappear in court every four months to be “tested” on classic literature by Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen.

“Have you read Dickens? Austen? Start with Pride and Prejudice and Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Think about Hardy. Think about Trollope,” Spencer said at the sentencing.

After the sentence was handed down, the UK-based Hope Not Hate anti-racism campaign group filed a request with Braverman asking her to order a new sentencing.

“These sorts of lenient sentences risk encouraging other young people to access and share terrorist and extremist content because they will not fear the repercussions of their actions,” Hope Not Hate said in a statement at the time.

Additionally, the UK Campaign Against Antisemitism said in a statement that it was “inexplicable that a man who collected nearly 70,000 neo-Nazi and terror-related documents could avoid a maximum jail term of fifteen years and leave court with no custodial sentence whatsoever.”

The group said the judge had instead “let off Ben John with a mere suspended sentence and some English homework.”

The sentencing came after John was convicted by a jury of possessing information likely to be useful for preparing an act of terror — a charge carrying a maximum jail sentence of fifteen years.

According to prosecutors, John was first identified as a terror risk days after his 18th birthday and was referred to a UK government counter-terrorism scheme. He nonetheless continued to download “repellant” right-wing documents as well as a copy of “The Anarchist Cookbook” including diagrams and instructions on how to build explosives.

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