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Brits get 4 years prison for Facebook riot posts

LONDON - About 1,400 people have already been charged with riot-related offenses after the chaos which gripped Britain last week.

More than 1,200 have appeared in court — often in chaotic, round-the clock-sessions dispensing justice that is swifter, and harsher, than usual.

Although public opinion currently favors stern punishment for anyone involved in the riots and looting, a few cases have made headlines and sparked debate.

Late Tuesday, two men in northwestern England were handed stiff jail terms for inciting disorder through social networking sites. Cheshire Police said Jordan Blackshaw, 20, and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, both received 4-year sentences for using Facebook to "organize and orchestrate" disorder.

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Blackshaw used the social networking site to create an event — with a date, time and location — for "massive Northwich lootin."'

Sutcliffe created a page on Facebook called "Warrington Riots" which listed a time and date for anyone who wished to be involved in a riot.

Prison sentences as long as four years have typically been handed down in Britain for serious crimes such as grievous bodily harm, sexual assault and other forms of assault or attempted assault.

Most of the convicted suspects have been sent for sentencing to higher courts which have the power to impose longer terms of imprisonment. Two-thirds of the accused have not been granted bail.

Some of the harsher sentences are expected to be appealed, and legal and human rights activists in Britain have expressed concern that the punishments may be reactionary and serve only to clog up the court system with appeals for years to come.

"The public disturbances are seen as an aggravating factor and that is fair enough," Andrew Neilson from the Howard League for Penal Reform told CBS News partner network Sky News. "But there seems to be a complete lack of proportionality to some of the sentences...These make a mockery of proportionality, which is a key principle of the justice system."

The maximum sentence for a conviction of inciting disorder in the U.K. is 10 years, however, and a representative of Britain's Crown Prosecution Service said the two young mens' Facebook posts, "caused significant panic and revulsion in local communities as rumors of anticipated violence spread."

That backing for tough sentences was echoed by a senior police officer from one of the hard-hit areas in England.

"The sentences passed down recognize how technology can be abused to incite criminal activity and sends a strong message to potential troublemakers," Assistant Chief Constable of Cheshire Police, Phil Thompson, told Sky.

Although Prime Minister David Cameron said last week that those who participated in the riots should go to prison, the government denied trying to influence the judiciary.

The courts service said "sentencing is a matter for the independent judiciary," though it acknowledged that magistrates in London were being told by their legal advisers "to consider whether their powers of punishment are sufficient in dealing with some cases arising from the recent disorder."

May, the home secretary, said she had pressed prosecutors to lift anonymity from underage defendants convicted of riot-related offenses. Defendants under 18 are customarily offered anonymity by law, even if they are convicted.

Other examples of contentious sentences in the wake of the riots include a London man who received six months in jail for stealing a case of water worth about $5 from a looted supermarket. A Manchester mother of two who did not take part in the riots was sentenced to five months for wearing a pair of looted shorts her roommate had brought home.

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