Cambridge Shoe Thrower Is Cleared

  • Share
  • Read Later
Leon Neal/AFP/Getty

German student Martin Jahnke leaves Cambridge Magistrates' Court

After two days of arguing about a lightweight brown sneaker that had been lobbed at Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao as he spoke at Cambridge University earlier this year, the verdict came with an air of denouement. On Tuesday, German biomedical research student Martin Jahnke, 27, who had tossed his footwear onto the stage during Wen's speech in protest over China's human-rights record, was found not guilty of a public order offense by the Cambridge Magistrates' Court.

There had been no disagreement over the facts of the case. On Feb. 2, as Wen was wrapping up his speech "See China in the Light of Her Development" to the students of the venerable English university, Jahnke started blowing a whistle and shouting, asking how the university could "prostitute itself" by letting a "dictator" speak. As university staff moved to evict him, Jahnke threw one of this shoes toward the podium, missing the Premier by three feet, before following officials and police out of the auditorium without resistance. (See pictures of the shoe-throwing incident in Iraq.)

Wen was unharmed and unfazed, but Cambridgeshire police charged Jahnke with causing "harassment, alarm, and distress" to the Chinese Premier and the students present. On Tuesday, District Judge Ken Sheraton ruled that there was insufficient evidence to prove that the alleged crime had in fact been committed. But the judge didn't let Jahnke off lightly. "You leave the court with an acquittal," Sheraton told the student, "but also with a warning for your future conduct." And with that verbal slap on the wrist, a line was drawn under a case that leaves unanswered questions about Chinese-British diplomacy and freedom of speech. (See pictures of China's electronic-waste village.)

Why, for example, were charges pressed in the first place, when unruly students are usually dealt with by Cambridge University internally? (Cambridge has no plans to do so in Jahnke's case: "Martin has no reason to fear any adverse consequences in ... the University," professor William Brown, head of Jahnke's college, told TIME in an e-mail. "We respect his freedom of expression.") British politicians regularly have things thrown at them by protesting members of the public — in 2001, someone threw an egg at then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who famously threw a punch back, and more recently, Business Secretary Peter Mandelson was the victim of a green-custard attack by an environmentalist. But cases like those don't usually end up in court. (See the top 10 awkward moments of 2008.)

Jahnke's lawyer argued that there had been pressure from the Chinese government to put his client on the stand. The claim was strongly denied by the prosecution, and the court ruled that there was no evidence of that. It remains unexplained, however, why the only witnesses who claimed that Jahnke's behavior had caused them anything resembling "harassment, alarm and distress" were Chinese students who had initially been contacted by a London law firm acting on behalf of the Chinese embassy.

Jahnke hadn't meant to hurt anybody with the shoe, he told the court. By throwing it at the podium, he had simply wanted to make an "iconic protest" against China's human-rights abuses. He was inspired, he said, by journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi — known as the Iraqi shoe thrower — who took aim at U.S. President George W. Bush in Baghdad in December 2008. Al-Zaidi was imprisoned for three years, though his sentence was recently reduced to one year. Shoe-throwing has since become a universally recognized gesture of defiance against a "regime that is not accountable to anybody and reigns with violence," Jahnke said. But, he added, it is not, in itself, a violent act. (See pictures of George W. Bush abroad.)

In fact, Jahnke hadn't expected to be the only protester in the hall, he told the court. He had brought a whistle only to join in. When Wen — who was, according to Jahnke, greeted by a standing ovation — and his speech went unchallenged, Jahnke decided to go it alone. He was "terrified," he said, and to his surprise, no one supported him.

Two days before the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Jahnke was acquitted of any wrongdoing for his symbolic act against the Chinese government. But how symbolic is it that in Britain — which prides itself on its history of democracy, free speech and debate — he found himself speaking out alone, and then sitting in a criminal court?

Read "China's New Deal: Modernizing the Middle Kingdom."

See pictures of the shoe-throwing incident in Iraq.