x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Outburst at gym may cost British diplomat his job

Court to rule this week on whether anti-Israeli comments were racist.

LONDON // A diplomat in charge of UK policy in the Indian sub-continent will discover on Thursday if he is to lose his job for alleged anti-Semitism. Rowan Laxton, the head of the Foreign Office's South Asia desk in London, admits shouting out "****ing Israelis" in disgust as he watched a report on the death of an innocent Palestinian farmer on TV at the London gym where he was working out. However, he denies the claim of another gym user that he also cursed Jews during the incident in January.

The alleged anti-Semitic remark has led to his appearing in court charged with inciting racial hatred. If a judge finds him guilty in a ruling on Thursday, he stands to be dismissed from his £70,000-a-year Foreign Office post. Gillian Merron, the foreign office minister, announced in parliament in March that Mr Laxton, 48, had been suspended from his job and, last week, he appeared in court to deny the charge of stirring up religious hatred.

Gideon Falter, a Jew who was using the gym at the same time as Mr Laxton, told the court that he had heard the shouting from the floor above him, which was otherwise empty apart from Mr Laxton. Mr Falter said that when the diplomat had come downstairs, he had admitted that he had done the shouting. According to Mr Falter, Mr Laxton then added: "It's not racist. If I had my way, the international community would be sent in and, if the Israelis got in the way, they would be blown off the face of the [expletive] earth."

The court heard that Mr Falter had made a complaint to the police, who were originally going to give Mr Laxton a caution. However, Mr Falter repeated his allegations in the press, leading to Mr Laxton being suspended from his job and then charged. In his evidence, Mr Laxton denied saying anything about Judaism but admitted that he had cursed Israel after being deeply upset by a Sky News report featuring the bombing of the Palestinian farmer during the Gaza invasion.

He said that he had immediately apologised to Mr Falter when he confronted him. "I am embarrassed," he told the court. "I offended somebody, I embarrassed the Foreign Office, I've caused anxiety to a number of friends and family. "In particular I regret using foul language and I regret using imprecise language. I regret very much the way in which this case came out in the media and the suggestion that I am anti-Semitic or racist in any way. I am not. I fully accept that my comments suggested I felt that everybody in Israel was somehow responsible for that action."

Mr Laxton said that he felt that the farmer's death "was such a terrible story and it seemed to me emblematic of the human tragedy in Gaza". He admitted he said to Mr Falter that "there should be a ceasefire and the international community should step in and keep the parties apart". But he denied saying anything about Israelis being blown off the face of the earth. Several friends of Mr Laxton, including one whose father died in the Holocaust, gave evidence to the court that the diplomat was neither racist nor anti-Semitic.

Julian Knowles, his barrister, also argued that, because his client was alone on the gym floor where he was working out, he could not be guilty of inciting religious hatred or causing alarm, harassment or distress because he had no reason to believe anyone could hear him. "If you say something and you have got no reason to believe someone is going to hear you, no matter how offensive it is, you are not guilty of an offence," Mr Knowles said.

"The words were not directed at any person. The police spoke to 12 other people who were in the gym that evening and none of them heard it. Even Mr Falter accepted that as [Mr Laxton] spoke, he was looking at the television." (Mr Falter could see Mr Laxton working out above him as he was on the open mezzanine floor.) Mr Knowles added that Mr Laxton could not be guilty of inciting racial hatred because, although he had cursed Israel, he had not cursed Jews.

The court was told that Mr Laxton was in an emotional state at the time of the incident because, earlier in the day, he had settled a "difficult" divorce with his wife. Nick Paul, the prosecutor, suggested to Mr Laxton that the cause of the outburst stemmed from the fact that he regarded the divorce settlement as unfair to him. But the diplomat said that, while he was upset, the reason was purely a result of witnessing the farmer's death.

In his job at the Foreign Office, Mr Laxton reports directly to David Miliband, the foreign secretary, who is himself Jewish. dsapsted@thenational.ae