From The Times Online: H/T Diana West
Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang arrive at court
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A district judge questioned the character of a Muslim convert as he dismissed the case against husband and wife Christian hoteliers who she claimed had deeply offended her new-found religion.
Ericka Tazi, 60, who converted when she married a Muslim man, had claimed that Ben Vogelenzang, 53, had called her a terrorist and compared Muhammad to a warlord when she wore a hijab on the last day of her stay at the Bounty House Hotel in Liverpool last March.
She also claimed that his wife Sharon, 54, had told her that wearing such a garment represented a form of bondage, or oppression, in a finger-pointing and aggressive tirade that left her severely traumatised.
After a two-day trial Richard Clancy, a district judge sitting at Liverpool Magistrates’ Court, threw out the allegations, suggesting that Mrs Tazi’s version of events could not be relied upon and that she was not the religious person she presented herself as in the witness box.
The case is being seen as a victory for free speech and religious liberty by evangelical groups, notably the Christian Institute, which sponsored the couple’s defence costs. It is likely to cause widespread alarm in the Muslim community.
It also brought Dutch-born Mr Vogelenzang and his wife, who were accused of religiously aggravated threatening behaviour under Section 5 of the Public Order Act, to the brink of financial ruin. They have lost trade and feared they would have to sell their business.
To the cheers of evangelical supporters, Mrs Vogelenzang, standing beside her tearful husband, said: “We have been found innocent of any crime. It has been a very difficult nine months. We are looking forward to rebuilding our business and getting on with our lives.
“We would like to thank all those who have supported us, family, friends, Christians and non-Christians alike from around the world. As Christmas approaches we wish everybody peace and goodwill.”
The 15-minute incident happened after Mrs Tazi, who suffers from fibro myalgia, came down to breakfast at the hotel at the end of a four-week course on pain management at Aintee Hospital. She decided to wear her hijab, the traditional Islamic dress, in celebration.
Mrs Tazi, a mother from Warrington, Cheshire, claimed that Mr Vogelenzang was transformed into a “whirling dervish”, likened Muhammad to warlords down through the ages and asked her: “Are you a terrorist or a murderer?”
Mr Vogelenzang, giving evidence today, denied the allegation and, in turn, suggested that it was Mrs Tazi who had provoked the confrontation by stating that Jesus was a minor prophet and that the Bible was not true.
At one point Mr Vogelenzang broke down in tears. He said that at first he had thought Mrs Tazi a “nice person”.
His voice raised and shaking with emotion, he said: “I was mistaken because she wasn’t a nice person at all. She was not a loving person because she ratted to the police and she was trying to make us lose our business.”
Later Hugh Tomlinson, QC, the couple’s counsel, suggested that Mrs Tazi was no “shrinking violet” and that she had also become angry during the exchange.
It could not be objectionable under the laws of England for a person to believe that women in Islam are oppressed, he said. Even if it was said that Muhammad was a warlord, this also could not be deemed offensive.
Freedom to be inoffensive was not a freedom worth having, he said.
He said: “The fact that someone is upset or offended is not a reason for criminalising the speech used by the other person.”
Dismissing the case, Mr Clancy questioned Mrs Tazi’s version of events, which amounted to “fairly big differences as to what happened”.
“Giving evidence Ericka made a remark, after she had been provoked, using words to the effect, ’would you like me to get my breasts out and wear a short skirt and be pie-eyed?’ When in actuality what she said was ’would you prefer me to have my tits out, my skirt so short my backside is hanging out and getting rat-arsed?”
Mr Clancy also referred to her conversation with an ambulance driver in which she said: “They were taking the p*** out of me.”
He said: “It does not quite form the same religious view that was put to me on the stand.”
Mr Vogelenzang wiped away a tear and his supporters clapped, as the judge stated that he was not satisfied with the facts and threw out the case.
Outside the court Nicky Inskip, senior crown Prosecutor, defended the Crown Prosecution Service decision to bring the case under the banner of hate crime.
She said: “We were satisfied that there was sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction that a religiously aggravated offence should be charged. In considering the public interest factors in favour of a prosecution, we took into account the impact that the incident had on the victim.”
There has so far been little evidence that Mrs Tazi’s experience has echoed within the wider Muslim communities, especially across the northern conurbations. But a group of young female Muslim students, who attended the trial, said this may now only be a matter of time.
One 18-year-old medical student at Liverpool University, who asked not to be named, said: “People are shocked and angry. This decision is going to make them even more upset.
“Mrs Tazi just comes down for breakfast wearing a head scarf and they start racially abusing her. They have just dismissed it as if it is nothing.”