I should have thought first: flag burner sentenced to jail

The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 January 2006.

The flag burner admitted he was stupid. The magistrate sentencing him thought the crime was an extreme act that caused emotional injury. In the end, this spontaneous act of revenge after the Cronulla riots cost the young man his freedom.

Sentencing Hadi Khawaja, 24, to three months′ jail, the magistrate, Paul Falzon, said yesterday that burning an Australian flag was "of great significance" and warranted a harsher penalty than the usual fine.

Khawaja apologised to Australians, saying he regretted setting alight a flag taken from the Brighton-le-Sands RSL and helping to burn it in front of a crowd of 150 people the night of the riots on December 11.

"It was a stupid thing to do, not something that me as a person would normally do. If I just thought about it for a couple of minutes I probably wouldn′t have done it. I would just like to apologise to the whole Australian community for doing the ungrateful act that I did," Khawaja told the court.

His wife, nursing their sleeping toddler, sat with his father and crying mother in Sutherland Local Court as he was jailed to concurrent jail terms of three months for malicious damage by fire and entering a building with intent to commit an indictable offence.

His wife was about to be evicted from their apartment because they are unable to pay the rent, the court heard. Khawaja has been in jail for a month already.

An Australian citizen, he moved to Australia from Lebanon as a six-year-old.

Had Khawaja entered the club and taken a trophy and broken that, or smashed a window, for example, the significance of the crime "would not have been as great", Mr Falzon said. "The emotional injury in this case is somewhat amplified in what he′s doing.

"It′s vandalism of a particular kind. It′s extreme vandalism... because of the nature of what was obtained to be burnt in the context of what happened and what was happening around this time."

The defence barrister, Dennis Stewart, had said Khawaja was not violent, nor a participant in the riot, and should not be punished for that. "If a university student burnt a flag they might be in jail for one night," Mr Stewart said.

"It [the flag“ has significance but in this country, unlike some other countries, there is the element of freedom of speech and what was committed was a criminal act but that should be kept in proportion. People should not be locked up for a considerable time because of the emotional attachment we have to the flag."

Outside court Mr Stewart said Khawaja would not appeal against the sentence.

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