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British white supremacist, initially sentenced to read Austen and Dickens, imprisoned for two years

The former home of the author Jane Austen in Chawton, England. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
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Ben John, a British man described by police as an extremist with neo-Nazi sympathies, has completed a journey from the classics to the clink.

After he was handed a suspended sentence last year for collecting antisemitic, white supremacist and extremist documents on hard drives, he received an unusual order from a judge: Read works of great literature by Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens, instead.

Among the materials in his possession: an updated version of the Anarchist Cookbook, a widely available text that includes various bomb “recipes,” once common reading among anti-government radicals. Possession of such books is allowed in the United States.

“He has by the skin of his teeth avoided imprisonment,” Judge Timothy Spencer told the Leicester Crown Court in August.

But this week the sentencing was overturned by an appeals court, which found that the original sentence was too lenient and put in place punishment of two years in prison and a third year on supervised release.

“We are satisfied that there must be a sentence of immediate imprisonment,” Timothy Holroyde, a lord justice on the appeals court, said Wednesday.

The original sentencing last year of John, then 21, had sparked debate and anger in the United Kingdom, with some critics suggesting that a non-White person would never receive the same punishment under Britain’s anti-terrorism laws.

“It’s just wildly not a typical sentence for extremists,” Aaron Winter, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of East London, said of the original sentence. “It’s also highly unlikely that a perpetrator who identifies as Muslim would have been handed such a light sentence: to read,” Winter added.

According to local media reports, John had first come to the attention of British counterterrorism officers shortly after his 18th birthday in 2018, when he wrote a letter to his school in the city of Lincoln claiming to be part of a “fascist underground” and railing against immigrants and gay people.

Police later said that John amassed almost 70,000 documents that included white supremacist and antisemitic ideology, as well as instructions on how to make explosives. He had been pursuing a degree in criminology with psychology at De Montfort University in Leicester when he was arrested.

In August 2021, John was found guilty by a jury of possessing information likely to be useful for preparing an act of terrorism. Under Section 58 of Britain’s Terrorism Act, that crime is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

But in court, the presiding judge called John a “lonely individual with few if any true friends” and said he was not convinced that harm was likely to be caused. Instead, he made John promise to stop reading extremist material and turn to something else instead.

“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 told the court, according to the Leicester Mercury newspaper.

John was ordered to report back to the judge on Jan. 4, with the judge promising to test him on it, but his jail sentence was suspended before that time.

The sentence quickly drew criticism, with anti-extremism group Hope Not Hate warning that it would send a broader message beyond the immediate case.

“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,” the group’s chief executive, Nick Lowles, said in an open letter in September.

William Allchorn, associate director of the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right, said that the sentence was closely watched as far-right extremism was a growing problem among British teens and young men, with arrests of those younger than 18 having “overtaken” Islamist terrorism.

“A lot of people get involved because of that sense of belonging and being part of a group or bigger cause,” Allchorn said.

“I think the idea of assigning great works of English literature is problematic,” said Winter, adding that the idea that the far right are uneducated was a common assumption among British elites and that the recommending only White, English authors could backfire when people “who are defending the Whiteness of the British canon and British culture against what they see as wokeness and cancel culture.”

Britain’s Attorney General’s Office announced shortly after the original sentence it would be reviewing it under a program for unduly lenient sentences.

In a court appearance this month, before his sentence was overturned, John had brought copies of both Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities” and Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” with him.

“I enjoyed Shakespeare more than I did Jane Austen but I still enjoyed Jane Austen by a degree,” John told the court, according to the Leicester Mercury.

British law enforcement’s focus on online reading in tracking potential right-wing extremism has drawn scrutiny from some legal scholars, with some concerned that such measures could in effect be “criminalizing curiosity.”

Alberto Testa, a criminologist at the University of West London, said that while deradicalization programs faced considerable criticism and at best-mixed results, jail time also rarely solved the problem.

“Prisons of course are not a panacea. Reoffending rates provide a clue,” Testa wrote in an email, adding that three-quarters of British inmates reoffend within nine years of their release.

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