LONDON // The wife of former prime minister Tony Blair might be stripped of her role as a judge after sparing a man jail because he was a devout Muslim. The Judicial Complaints Office - the official watchdog of the judiciary in England and Wales - will this week begin an investigation into complaints that Cherie Blair gave a more lenient sentence to the man because he was "religious". Members of the National Secular Society lodged a formal complaint against Mrs Blair - a prominent employment law barrister who also sits as a part-time judge in London - after she freed Shamso Miah, rather than imposing a jail sentence.
Mr Miah, 25, from Ilford, East London, had gone to a bank last August after attending prayers at a local mosque. He became involved in an argument with another customer, Mohammed Furcan, over who was first in the queue. The row resulted in Mr Miah hitting Mr Furcan in the face before running outside. When Mr Furcan followed him, Mr Miah turned round and struck him again, this time breaking Mr Furcan's jaw.
In court last week, Mrs Blair, who practises law under her maiden name, Cherie Booth, presided as judge over the case. Although she sentenced Mr Miah to six months' imprisonment, she suspended the sentence for two years on condition that Mr Miah behaved himself. "I am going to suspend this sentence for the period of two years based on the fact you are a religious person and have not been in trouble before. You are a religious man and you know this is not acceptable behaviour, " said Mrs Blair, herself a devout Roman Catholic.
Her remarks have opened up a debate in Britain over whether or not a religious person is any more likely to be a criminal than an atheist. Worse for Mrs Blair, whose husband is now special envoy to the Middle East, her remarks have been seized on by the extreme right-wing parties as indicative of a bias towards Muslims by "the establishment". Andrew Brons, a member of the European Parliament for the far- right British National Party, said on the website yesterday: "Yet another example of how the ruling elite set different standards of equality for indigenous British people and Muslim colonisers has come with the news that a Muslim man was spared jail for a vicious assault purely because 'he was a religious man'.
"There would be no chance at all of an indigenous British person being spared jail under similar circumstances 'because he was a Christian' or because he was not religious." The National Secular Society (NSS) has now complained to the Office for Judicial Complaints, accusing Mrs Blair of acting in an unjust and discriminatory way, and suggesting that she might have treated a non-religious person less leniently.
"It is wrong that someone so high profile as Mrs Blair - and she is a very high profile Catholic, too - should make such remarks in court," said Terry Sanderson, president of the society. "NSS was a founding member of the One Law for All Campaign, which seeks to impede the march of Sharia law in Britain. "Naturally, we think that in a democracy everyone must be equal under the law, with no exceptions. Sharia law is full of exceptions and it is clear that women are not equal under that system.
"But now we discover that a different - more favourable - system of justice is being applied to religious people by Cherie Blair in her capacity as a judge." Mr Sanderson described Mr Miah as "a violent yob" who had been spared prison simply because of his religion. "Now, what would have happened if he had been an atheist?" asked Mr Sanderson. "Would Mrs Blair have refused to suspend the sentence on the grounds that non-believers have no guiding principles that tell them that smashing people in the face for no good reason is not the right thing to do?
"This is a very worrying case of discrimination that appears to show that religious people get different treatment in Cherie Blair's court." The British Humanist Association (BHA) has also complained about Mrs Blair's behaviour. "Cherie Booth's remarks show a default assumption still made by too many in society that you are a good person if you are religious - that there is something intrinsically and self-evidently good about being religious and, conversely, that if you are non-religious you are somehow less moral," said Andrew Copson, BHA chief executive.
"This is an assumption that persists despite there being no evidence whatsoever to support it. "Being religious does not endow people with some special morality or goodness unattainable by the rest of us." However, George Pitcher, an Anglican priest in London, said in his column in The Daily Telegraph yesterday: "Cherie Booth, QC, as we must call her when she's not trading on her married name, wasn't saying that religious people are morally superior to others. She was saying that, as a religious man, he should know better.
"Even Booth, who isn't herself blessed with an unerring sense of right and wrong, will know that there are bad religious people and good non-religious people. "But what the humourless and po-faced bozos of the BHA and NSS have to get into their restricted imaginations is the answer to this question: do adherents to a major faith have demonstrable, objective and tangible standards of behaviour towards others enshrined in their religious traditions, to which they can and should be expected to aspire because they are accountable to their divine authority, that are not so prescribed by secular authorities?"
The answer, according to Mr Pitcher, is "yes". Mrs Blair's ruling will now be investigated by the Judicial Complaints Office, who could then order a full inquiry into her conduct. firstname.lastname@example.org