Robul Hoque: sentenced for a thought crime

Since when has possessing weird cartoons been a criminal offence?

Until this week, Amazon’s decision to put racism warnings on old episodes of Tom and Jerry looked like it would be the frontrunner for the most absurd cartoon-related overreaction of the year. Not anymore. That position has been stolen by the UK courts’ decision to give a nine-month suspended prison sentence to Robul Hoque, a 39-year-old man from Middlesbrough, for possession of Japanese-style manga images and anime cartoons. Several of these images depicted young girls exposing themselves and engaging in sexual acts.

During the trial, Hoque’s barrister, Richard Bennett, insisted that the material was available on legal pornographic websites and the presiding judge, Tony Biggs, emphasised that ‘no actual children or perpetrators [were] involved’. Even so, the judge believed that the possession of the ‘repulsive’ comics and cartoons were worthy of a prison sentence, because, he said, anything that may encourage child abuse should be ‘actively discouraged’.

This is the second time that Hoque has been prosecuted. In 2008, he was prosecuted for possessing Tomb Raider-style computer graphics depicting nude children. On that occasion, he was convicted of the made-up-sounding crime of producing ‘indecent pseudo-photographs’ – that is, the images were so realistic that they were almost indistinguishable from real photos. That’s right, he was convicted on the basis that the digital drawings he possessed were quite good, even though, yet again, no actual children were involved. Presumably stick figures of naked children would not be deemed obscene enough for a conviction. It seems that the courts are now being asked to convict someone based on the quality of their erotic art. 

The most frequently cited argument for the criminalisation of the possession of child pornography is that such material initially involves the abuse of children, therefore possessing it creates a market for the pornography and makes the viewer complicit in the abuse. Such an argument cannot be made for cartoon images. As Lenore Skenazy pointed out in Reason, manga and anime cannot be child pornography because you cannot assign a human age to a drawing.

People getting off on cartoons is in itself very odd. And the fact that the images and animations Hoque possessed depicted children makes it all the more creepy. However, apart from Hoque’s two prosecutions for possession of erotic art depicting children, he has no convictions for child abuse, possession of actual child pornography, or convictions for anything else, for that matter. In other words, there is no reason to believe he is a threat to children.

This is what makes the case so chilling. Hoque was convicted of a thought crime, not a sex crime. That’s because a sex crime needs a victim. But not only was what Hoque did a victimless crime, it was also one that everyone else would have been oblivious to had the police not actively sought Hoque out. The fact that possessing something in private, which gives a window into your thoughts and nothing else, can now be a crime, shows how insidious and deranged the moral panic over paedophilia has become.

Now Hoque, who has harmed no one and seemed content to keep his strange cartoon-based sexual proclivities to himself, is a convicted sex offender, lumped in with some of the most reviled people in society. What this conviction amounts to is the policing of an individual’s innermost thoughts, their sexual fantasies. The fact that there is little reason to believe that Hoque has or would ever act on his fantasies hardly seems to matter – just thinking the wrong thing is now the crime.

Hoque’s conviction sets a shocking precedent. It empowers the state to police one’s fantasies, to voyage inside a person’s head and monitor its contents. It seems that what was once the stuff of sci-fi dystopias, is now normal in twenty-first century Britain. And that really is disturbing.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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