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Trio guilty of displaying images of ‘paragliders’ at pro-Palestinian march

Three women who displayed images of “paragliders” at a pro-Palestinian march in central London a week after Hamas militants entered Israel have been found guilty of a terror offence.

Heba Alhayek, 29, and Pauline Ankunda, 26, attached images to their backs with tape, while Noimutu Olayinka Taiwo, 27, stuck one to the handle of a placard.

But the trio, who lowered their heads and wept in the dock as the verdict was read out, were spared jail after the judge decided their lesson had been “well learned”.

The women displayed the images on October 14 2023, just seven days after militants from Hamas launched a surprise aerial assault to enter Israel from Gaza on October 7 before killing more than 1,000 Israelis.

They were charged under the Terrorism Act with carrying or displaying an article to arouse reasonable suspicion that they are supporters of banned organisation Hamas, which they denied.

Following a two-day trial at Westminster Magistrates’ Court, the trio were found guilty on Tuesday after prosecutors argued it was “no coincidence” the defendants were displaying the images so soon after the attack.

Lawyers for the group had suggested they were actually displaying images of a parachute emoji rather than paragliders, and that flying-related images were a common symbol of peace in the region.

Mark Summers KC, for Alhayek and Ankunda, claimed the idea that the image represented a paraglider started with “an internet group with an agenda”.

Giving his verdict, Deputy Senior District Judge Tan Ikram agreed that the image had been “wrongly described” as a paraglider by the police and prosecution.

He added that there was no evidence that any of women supported Hamas, but said it “matters not” because the issue came down to what a “reasonable person” would think the picture meant.

Demonstrators
Heba Alhayek, 29, (left) and Pauline Ankunda, 26, arrive at Westminster Magistrates’ Court (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Section 13 of the Terrorism Act is a strict liability offence, meaning the motivation of the trio was not a factor in the case, but the interpretation of a “reasonable person” was.

Mr Ikram said “a reasonable person would have seen and read” about Hamas militants’ use of “what was described by the media as paragliders”, and would therefore associate the image with that tactic.

Lawyers for the group argued that flying-related images were a common symbol of peace in the region, but the judge said he did not believe a reasonable person would interpret the image “merely as a symbol of freedom.”

Mr Ikram said he had “decided not to punish” the defendants, and handed each woman a 12-month conditional discharge, meaning they will not face punishment unless they commit further offences.

“You crossed the line, but it would have been fair to say that emotions ran very high on this issue,” he added.

“Your lesson has been well learned.

“I do not find you were seeking to show any support for Hamas.”

Alhayek and Ankunda were each ordered to pay costs of £400, while no such order was made for Taiwo.

They must pay a surcharge of £26.

Pro-Palestinian demonstration court case
Noimutu Olayinka Taiwo, 27, arrives at Westminster Magistrates’ Court (Jonathan Brady/PA)

After the Metropolitan Police launched a social media appeal to find them, Alhayek and Ankunda handed themselves in to Croydon Police Station.

In a police interview, the pair initially claimed someone at the demonstration “who was not known to them” had stuck the images to their backs, before changing their statements, admitting they had attached them themselves.

“Their reaction was firstly to lie,” prosecutor Brett Weaver told the court.

When arrested an interviewed under caution, Taiwo claimed to have been handed the placard and not paid proper attention to the “blurry image” it displayed.

Reacting to the verdict, the Crown Prosecution Service said displaying the images amounted to the “glorification of the actions” of Hamas.

Nick Price, head of the CPS Special Crime and Counter Terrorism Division, said: “All three women knowingly displayed the images of paragliders in central London and therefore showed their support for Hamas, a proscribed terrorist organisation.

“The fact that these images were being displayed in the context of a protest opposing the Israeli response to the Hamas attacks demonstrates a glorification of the actions taken by the group.

“Displaying these images could be viewed as celebrating the use of paragliders as a tactic to breach the Gaza/Israel border, and creates a risk of encouraging others to support Hamas.

“When people break the law, whether by hateful speech, supporting proscribed organisations or by threatening public order, we prosecute swiftly and independently.

“We have already prosecuted a string of offences linked to events in the Middle East and we are working closely with the police and community leaders to make sure our approach commands public confidence.”