A former student who downloaded almost 70,000 white supremacist documents and bomb-making instructions has escaped jail “by the skin of his teeth” after being told to read classic literature by Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare and Hardy.
Ben John, 21, from Lincoln, a former student at De Montfort University in Leicester, has to return to court every four months to be tested on his reading, Judge Timothy Spencer QC said, also sentencing him to a suspended two years’ imprisonment plus a further two years on licence.
John was identified as a terror risk days after his 18th birthday and was referred to the Prevent programme but continued to download “repellent” rightwing documents, the Leicester Mercury reported. He also wrote a letter raging against gay people, immigrants and liberals.
On 11 August, he was convicted by a jury of possessing information likely to be useful for preparing an act of terror, which carries a maximum jail sentence of 15 years.
But sentencing him at Leicester crown court, the judge concluded his crime as likely to be “an act of teenage folly” and an isolated incident.
He told John: “You are a lonely individual with few if any true friends.” He said John was “highly susceptible” to recruitment by others, but he was “not of the view that harm was likely to have been caused”.
After making John promise not to research any more rightwing material, the judge continued: “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.
“On January 4 you will tell me what you have read and I will test you on it. I will test you and if I think you are [lying to] me you will suffer.”
He then told John’s barrister, Harry Bentley: “He has by the skin of his teeth avoided imprisonment.”
In addition to the suspended prison sentence, John was given a five-year serious crime prevention order.
The court heard John came to the attention of counter-terrorism officers in 2018 after he wrote a letter entitled Eternal Front – claiming to be part of the Lincolnshire Fascist Underground – with a tirade against gay people and immigrants, which led to more intensive intervention by Prevent and psychiatric evaluation.
But in April 2019 he copied more than 9,000 rightwing and terror-related documents on to the hard drive of his computer, adding another 2,600 a few months later in August 2019.
He was arrested in January 2020 and later charged with offences under the Terrorism Act, including possessing documents on combat, homemade weapons and explosives.
Lincolnshire police said John had become part of the extreme right wing (XRW) online – a term for activists who commit criminal activity motivated by a political or cultural view, such as racism or extreme nationalism.
He amassed 67,788 documents in bulk downloads onto hard drives, which contained a wealth of white supremacist and antisemitic material.
Spencer said: “It is repellent, this content, to any right-thinking person. This material is largely relating to Nazi, fascist and Adolf Hitler-inspired ideology. But there was also a substantial quantity of more contemporary material espousing extreme rightwing, white-supremacist material.”
Bentley told the judge: “It is not the prosecution case he was planning a terrorist attack.”
He added: “He was a young man who struggled with emotions; however, he is plainly an intelligent young man and now has a greater insight.
“He is by no means a lost cause and is capable of living a normal, pro-social life.”
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