A senior judge was under investigation yesterday after being accused of making anti-Semitic remarks in court that may have swayed his jury into acquitting a group of protesters.
Judge George Bathurst-Norman was said by critics to have persuaded a jury to clear a group of campaigners who smashed up a factory making parts for Israeli warplanes.
Summing up in the criminal damage trial, he compared Israel to the Nazi regime and accused the country of ignoring international law.
The judge added that ‘there may be much to be admired’ about the chief protester, and that ‘in the last war he would probably have received a George Medal’.
The Office for Judicial Complaints, which deals with objections over the conduct of judges and magistrates, confirmed that an inquiry into how Judge Bathurst-Norman handled the trial of five political activists at Hove Crown Court in June is under way.
Its findings will be considered by Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge and Lord Chancellor Kenneth Clarke, who have the final say on any disciplinary action.
A number of complaints are said to have accused the judge not just of anti-Israel rhetoric but specifically of anti-Semitism.
The case involved a group of activists who broke into and vandalised a Brighton factory run by engineering firm EDO MBM.
The company was making parts for use in the bomb-aiming equipment on Israeli F16 warplanes.
The invasion shut the factory for a week and caused £187,000 worth of damage. But five men and women who appeared in court claimed they had done nothing wrong under criminal damage law.
The law says someone is not guilty of causing damage if they believed it was necessary for the immediate protection of someone else’s property.
It is framed to protect, for example, someone who smashes a neighbour’s door down if they believe their house is on fire.
However, in the Brighton case, the activists claimed they believed their invasion was necessary for the protection of property in Gaza.
Several similar defences by protesters have been successful in recent years.
In 2008, six Greenpeace protesters were acquitted after causing £30,000 worth of damage at a coal-fired power station.
The jury in that case accepted they had acted to prevent climate change causing greater damage.
Describing evidence shown in court, Judge Bathurst-Norman told the jury that he could only describe the ‘horrific’ events shown as ‘scenes which one would rather have hoped to have disappeared with the Nazi regimes of the last war’.
In his summing up, he gave his backing to the evidence of one defendant, Ornella Saibene, a former Greenham Common activist.
The judge said: ‘She took us through the horrors, and there really is no other word for it than horrors, that emerged in the press and on the news and the footage as to what the Israelis were doing in Gaza.
‘You may think that perhaps “Hell on Earth” would be an understatement of what the Gazans endured.’
Among groups complaining was the Board of Deputies of British Jews.
Its president, Vivian Wineman, said: ‘The judge’s comments give rise to profound concerns about the appropriateness of his directions to the jury.’
Jonathan Hoffman, of the Zionist Federation, said: ‘This opens the door to any group which thinks the British presence in Afghanistan is wrong to go and smash up plants supplying British forces.’