Soldier's 'racist' views do not make him a criminal, jury told

The "racist" views of an Army trainer and alleged recruiter for banned neo-Nazi group National Action do not make him a criminal, a jury has been told.

The barrister for 33-year-old Lance Corporal Mikko Vehvilainen told jurors on Wednesday it was "not in dispute that he is a racist".

Pavlos Panayi QC said: "It is not disputed that he has written and said things which the vast majority of people will find utterly repulsive, about black people, Jews, Muslims and lots of other minority groups.

"It is not disputed he has associated with other racists, men and women, from what might be called the Far Right, that might include neo-Nazis, and other different groups of people."

But he added that while the "groundbreaking case" would test the limits of free speech and freedom of association in Britain, Vehvilainen's actions were not criminal.

Vehvilainen and fellow Royal Anglian Regiment soldier, 25-year-old Private Mark Barrett are both on trial accused of membership of the far-right organisation, which was banned by the government in December 2016.

Child sex offences court case
Birmingham Crown Court, where three men, including two serving British soldiers, are on trial accused of membership of banned neo-Nazi group National Action. (Joe Giddens/PA)

Also facing the same charge at Birmingham Crown Court is a 23-year-old male who cannot be named for legal reasons, but who was described in court as a "regional leader" for the group.

The jury heard how Vehvilainen had a host lawfully held weapons including "guns, knives and crossbows" which he kept at his Army accommodation in Sennybridge Camp, Powys.

Jurors were also told he had pleaded guilty to unlawfully having a canister of CS spray among those weapons.

Addressing the jury after the prosecution's opening speech, Mr Panayi said: "In many ways this case is unprecedented because you have heard that National Action was the first far-right group to be banned since the Second World War and this is the first prosecution arising out of that ban.

"It is a groundbreaking case."

He added: "This case will test the limits of free speech, the freedom to say what you think and the freedom to frighten, offend and discuss."

The QC said: "You are, in the end, going to have to determine in this case where the boundary lies between L/Cpl Mikko Vehvilainen's right to speak freely, to think what he chooses to, and associate with others who share his views and where that boundary lies.

"Whether it crosses over into the reaches of criminal law or not."

Vehvilainen, who is married with children, is also accused of two counts of stirring up racial hatred through posts on the US-based Christogenea.org website, where he used the name NicoChristian.

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White nationalist extremist Anders Breivik, a copy of whom's manifesto was allegedly found in L/Cpl Vehvilainen's possession. (PA)

He has been further charged with possessing a document likely to be of use to terrorists - a copy of white nationalist Anders Breivik's manifesto.

Counsel for Barrett, of Dhekalia Barracks, Cyprus, where he lived with his wife and children, also told the jury the case was "not about assessing the morality of expressing prejudicial opinions all right-minded people might recoil from".

Colin Aylott said: "Are the hallmarks of membership truly present in what he did, and how he expressed himself?

"Ask yourself - casual racist of committed fanatic?

"Because that is the issue you have to decide in this case."

Addressing the court on behalf of the defendant who cannot be named, barrister Christopher Knox claimed National Action "did not exist" as an organisation after it was banned.

Mr Knox said of the 23-year-old: "We will submit to you that he is no terrorist.

"He was involved with National Action and he held views which he well understands you might find really distasteful, but those are views he was, and is, entitled to hold."

The court heard that the male had made attempts to join the Army.

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