On the problem of proving hate

A picture of Bijan EbrahimiYesterday I saw a post on the Disability Hate Crime Network group on Facebook about a crime in which a ‘vulnerable’ man was kept captive and tortured for more than a week by a gang of six males and one female who falsely accused him of being a paedophile. Last month all pleaded guilty to false imprisonment and occasioning grievous bodily harm (GBH) with intent and were sentenced to between 10 and 13 years each (one of the males, a juvenile, received four years’ detention). The ringleader, Stephanie Titley, had offered the victim, who is still alive and cannot be named, a place to stay but became abusive when rumours were spread that he was a paedophile; the gang punched and kicked him, used knives and a machete and burned him with cigarettes, leaving him with a broken jaw and ribs. The Facebook post by Stephen Brookes notes that recorded evidence suggests that the gang were motivated not by hatred towards a real or perceived disability but by the false belief that the victim had engaged in sexual acts with children, thus it did not fit the definition of a disability hate crime. To me, this strengthens my view that proof of hate towards disability should not be required in cases of violence towards a disabled person, especially a person with a learning disability.

The press reports describe the man as ‘vulnerable’ and he has not been named; the latter is not usual in cases of people accused of sex crimes (which he formally was not, but rumours were spread to that effect), so the assumption is that he had learning difficulties. False accusations of such crimes are a common feature of violence against people with learning disabilities (as in the case of Bijan Ebrahimi, pictured, from 2013), even though false accusations of rape generally are quite rare. Why? I suspect the reason is that people associate ‘weirdness’ with ‘perverts’: we commonly refer to them as weirdos, and we tell children to be careful when outside (or keep them inside) because of “all the weirdos out there”. At the same time, people with learning difficulties also often exhibit ‘weird’ behaviour such as talking to themselves (which is quite often a nervous habit linked to past bullying) and may dress unfashionably and have such habits as carrying their belongings in a carrier bag rather than a ‘proper’ rucksack or sports bag. So, it’s easy for people to believe that someone with ‘weird’ habits is the type of weirdo that might molest a child, especially if he had been seen talking to a child he wasn’t related to, or had annoyed a woman (on purpose or otherwise).

When I was at boarding school, there was a boy in my form who was bullied for the whole time he was there, chiefly because he was fat. Towards the end, because of this and other problems (such as with his family), he took to drink and was a nightmare to live with, but was expelled for attacking a female former teacher (not sexually). Years later, I heard that the boy had spent time in prison, and another old boy I spoke to said that he was a “disgusting little boy” and as for his time in prison, he had “probably raped somebody”. Yet I didn’t believe he would have done something like that, and wasn’t convinced he was capable of overpowering an adult for that purpose. The logic ran, “he was a shit, rapists are shits, therefore he was probably a rapist”. This is the same sort of logic that would convince a group of ruffians that a ‘weird’ man who was ‘a bit slow’ might also be a child molester the moment someone even suggested it.

Of course, the majority of rapists and child-molesters are not weirdos in ill-fitting clothes; they are often respectable or admired people such as clergymen, teachers, pop stars, TV presenters and so on, or members of their victim’s family, but this does not occur to a lot of people. While it appears that the recordings of these thugs indicated that they were motivated more by the belief that he had molested a child than by his impairment, I would like to know if they contained any indication of awareness of his impairment — references to him being a “bit slow” or derogatory versions of the same, for example. As I have said in response to previous disability hate crimes, I believe that it should not be necessary to prove outright hostility to someone on disability grounds to aggravate assaults on disabled people into hate crimes, or crimes “aggravated by disability”; the culprits should have to be only aware of it, and there be no personal insult or grudge involved. This way, when a group of people abuse someone who is disabled because they thought the absolute worst of them because they acted weird, it would attract suitable punishment from the law.

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