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A police force was forced to apologise today after one of its officers told a newsagent to hand over the names of four people in the name of community cohesion, after they bought a commemorative edition of the Charlie Hebdo magazine.
Wiltshire police confirmed that it had deleted the names of the buyers from its system, which were collected after officers toured shops warning newsagents to be vigilant during an “assessment of community tensions” in the sleepy market town following the attacks in the French capital in January.
One of the customers, a 77-year-old retired ward sister, described the officer as a “jobsworth” and said that she found the whole situation so unlikely that she thought it was a hoax. “At the time I was a bit miffed,” Anne Keat told The Independent. “I thought that’s a bit rich, two days after I got my copy, haven’t they got better things to do?
“They always talk about the pressure on the resources they have got to put into these things. No wonder they’re short of cash.”
Mrs Keat, a self-confessed news junkie, ordered the magazine from a local newsagent in Corsham, Wiltshire, a week after the 7 January attacks in Paris. Two days after she bought her magazine, she learned that an officer had been back to ask for the names of the buyers.
The names and addresses of the buyers were added to an intelligence note and fed into a police crime and intelligence system, police confirmed. The force deleted the note after details of the visit came to light in a letter that Mrs Keat wrote to The Guardian and warned of the potential ramifications after seeing an advert for Je Suis Charlie badges.
She said that she was never contacted by police, and was not aware of the identities of the other three buyers of the magazine. The newsagent and post office where she bought the magazine, Hawthorn Stores, declined to comment.
Emma Carr, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “The Charlie Hebdo attack brought millions of people worldwide together to condemn those who seek to silence free speech through threats of intimidation and violence.
“We therefore have to hope that this is the result of an overzealous police officer, rather than a campaign of intimidation by Wiltshire Police.”
Residents expressed mystification at the police attention following the Paris attacks on the town with its “lovely high street” where lots went on, but only within its active community groups. “Life plods on but not very exciting things happen,” said Corsham councillor Anne Lock.
Police said that policing teams had visited businesses, and particularly newsagents distributing the Charlie Hebdo magazine, to consider if they were vulnerable as part of a wider assessment of community tensions after the Paris attacks. There was no specific threat nationally and nothing to suggest newsagents would be vulnerable, the force said in a statement.
“Wiltshire Police would like to apologise to the members of public who may be affected by this. Information relating to this specific incident has been permanently and securely disposed of,” it said.
No formal complaint has been made against the officer who will receive “words of advice” but is unlikely to face any disciplinary proceedings.
“Wiltshire Police are confident that the police officer’s intention was purely around enhancing public safety and ensuring that the newsagent was advised appropriately.”
Seventeen people were killed in three days of violence in Paris that began with two gunmen bursting into the magazine’s Paris offices and opening fire in revenge for its publication of satirical images of the prophet.
The killings sparked worldwide revulsion and a campaign that brought thousands on to the streets brandishing pens and candles in support of free speech.
Five million copies of the magazine – which has a usual print run of around 60,000 – were published in a special edition, with about 2,000 of them distributed in the UK, according to reports.
More than 1,000 British Muslims protested in central London at the weekend at what they called “insulting depictions” of the Prophet Mohammed by Charlie Hebdo.
“Terrorist” and “terrorism” are politically motivated words, interchangeable with “clinically insane”, “religious extremists” or “(ideology)-ists”.