Laying down the law

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Laying down the law

A British court gave two men in their 20s four-year jail terms for trying to incite riots by setting up pages on the social networking site Facebook. Lots of rioting and looting took place across Britain last week, but no sympathy rallies broke out in the neighborhoods the sentenced men came from. The court slapped tough punishments on the two men for trying to break the peace in the city and causing “serious” terror to civilians and police - even though their online organising didn’t lead to real damage. The court sent a strong message that tough justice could be imposed on reckless liberty of expression if public safety was at stake.

The British government and courts have been brutal in their crackdown on the recent outbreaks of violence. They have been criticized for losing a sense of proportion in some of the sentences. One man was jailed for six months for stealing bottled water worth 3.5 pounds (6,200 won) from a supermarket during the riots, and a woman who wore shorts her roommate stole from a shop received a 5-month term. It’s no wonder that some of the sentences are being criticized for a key judicial principle of proportionality doesn’t allow excessive punishment under the Constitution. Nevertheless, courts handed prison sentences to 700 out of 1,300 accused of crimes related to the riots. It exhibited zero tolerance for mayhem in the streets.

Such court rulings are unimaginable in our society. Inflammatory messages implying that imported American beef contained mad cow disease rocked the country in 2008 and prompted rallies for weeks nationwide. According to the white book of the prosecutors’ investigation released in 2009, the rallies took place 2,398 times for 106 days, and drew 930,000 participants. Some 1,476 people were questioned for violence during the rallies, but just 43 were arrested. The rest received slaps on the wrist and walked off after paying small fines.

The fault lies initially with the judiciary. The court admitted that the MBC investigative TV program PD Diary, which incited the mad cow scare, was false, but it let the producers and staff walk free. The so-called ringleaders of the riots were released on bail. A female actress who said she’d rather eat poison than American beef is still active on TV and in the cinema. Lenient punishment for crimes leads to public disregard for the law.

We live in an era of muddled values. With an increasing danger of social conflict and violence, the law must bear greater authority. Britain has set the right example.
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