Paul Bussetti, a regular at the South Norwood Conservative Club who became nationally notorious after filming a video of a cardboard model of Grenfell Tower being burned on a bonfire, must face a re-trial, a High Court judge has ruled.
Bussetti also has four weeks in which to pay a £6,000 legal bill.
He was accused of posting a “grossly offensive” video on WhatsApp in November 2018, prompting widespread outrage. South Norwood neighbours who know Bussetti and his small group of mates were moved to stage an anti-racism march through South Norwood to express solidarity with the Grenfell victims.
However, on Friday the High Court quashed Bussetti’s acquittal after the Crown Prosecution Service brought an appeal.
The prosecution at the original trial argued the footage, in which cardboard figures burned as the model went up in flames, was racist in showing black and brown characters representing victims of the Grenfell Tower blaze, which killed 72 people in 2017.
Bussetti claimed the characters were images of his associates, including a black-clad figure meant to represent a friend who did martial arts and had been referred to as “little ninja”.
Near the end of the trial, Bussetti’s lawyers said a second video of the bonfire existed of which they were not previously aware, meaning there was no way to know which footage had been uploaded to YouTube and gone viral.
The then chief magistrate, Emma Arbuthnot, who is now a High Court judge, said she could not be sure he had filmed the video that was widely seen – including by some directly affected by the tragedy.
However, in his ruling ordering a retrial, Lord Justice Bean said on Friday that the trial judge should have found that the two videos of the bonfire were similar.
“It may be that the sound quality of Mr Bussetti’s video was not as good as that of the video which we have seen, if it was indeed not the same one, or the camera angle slightly different, but that is of minimal significance.
“Since it was clear for the reasons given above that Mr Bussetti’s video was substantially similar, though maybe not identical, to the one uploaded to YouTube and played in court, the chief magistrate was required to consider whether its content was grossly offensive and whether [Bussetti] intended it to be so or was aware that it was likely to be so.”
Bean, sitting with Mr Justice Dove, also rejected Bussetti’s lawyers’ argument that the prosecution’s case was only about racism.
“The question was whether Mr Bussetti had sent via WhatsApp a message which he intended to be, or which he was aware might be, grossly offensive to members of the public, in particular members of the Grenfell community, who saw it.
“Not all the victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster were from ethnic minorities, though many were.”
The judge later said he did not accept Bussetti’s argument – that the figures in the bonfire were his friends – as a defence. “Even if the trial court accepts that the cutout figures may have been intended to represent the defendant and his friends, that would not in my view provide a defence to the charge.
“A member of the Grenfell community or other reasonable member of the public, seeing a video of the effigy, would not know that the figures were intended to be anyone other than the residents of Grenfell Tower.
“There are no names attached to the cutout figures; only the name ‘Grenfell’ at the top of the effigy, which clearly depicts a tall building with people at the windows.”
Bussetti faces a retrial at Westminster magistrates court in front of a different judge, and will also have to pay the CPS’s costs of £6,095 within 28 days.
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