Four years for man who tried to burn down Leith temple and church

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A man with “issues” with God and religion who started fires at two places of worship in Edinburgh within minutes of each other has been jailed for four years.

Paul Johnson, 49, told police after he was arrested for the fires at a Methodist church and a Sikh temple that he had wanted to watch them burn down.

The doors to the Guru Nanak Gurdwara in Sheriff Brae which were deliberately set alight in August. Picture:

The doors to the Guru Nanak Gurdwara in Sheriff Brae which were deliberately set alight in August. Picture:

Johnson claimed that he was wanting to make “a political statement” but would not elaborate on the details.

READ MORE: Extensive damage to Leith Sikh temple in arson attack

Advocate depute Alan Cameron said: “When asked whether this was religiously motivated he stated that he has no issue with any particular religion but his issues are with religion and God in general.”

On Thursday, Johnson - who pleaded guilty to two charges last month, was sent to prison.

Passing sentence, Lord Boyd told Johnson that he had no other option but to impose a custodial term on him..

He added: “Your actions put people at risk. They were reckless and wicked. I take into account that your actions were motivated by a grudge against religion and religious authority and not against one particular religion.

“Indeed, I take into account that you appeared not to know what denominations you targeted.”

Johnson admitted two charges of wilful fire raising aggravated by religious prejudice when he appeared at the High Court in Edinburgh last month.

He pled guilty to setting fire to the doors of the Leith Methodist Church at Junction Place on August 28 this year by pouring petrol over them and applying a naked flame resulting in charring and burn marks.

He also admitted on the same day setting for to the doors of the Guru Nanak Sikh Temple at Sheriff Brae, in Leith, by gathering combustible material, placing it against the doors, pouring petrol on it and applying a flame with the result that the doors caught fire and smoke penetrated the building endangering the life of inhabitants.

READ MORE: Man arrested following firebomb attack on Leith Sikh temple

The court heard that the temple priest Harbhajan Singh earlier secured the doors of the premises and went to family quarters at the rear of the building where he stayed with his wife and child.

Before 5 am Michal Kazimierczak walked to the temple with the intention of praying at the entrance prior to going to work and tried to clear what appeared to be litter from the a gap at the bottom of the doors only to discover it was alight and had taken hold.

He ran to the side of the building and alerted the sleeping priest and both men then tried to put out the fire using a bucket of water.

The fire brigade was alerted and 11 firefighters were deployed to bring the blaze under control. Significant burning and charring was seen on the doors and smoke had engulfed the building.

A caretaker at the Methodist church arrived at his work and smelled petrol and burning and saw scorch marks at the gate and steps at the front door. After media reports of the fire at the Sikh temple he contacted police.

Unemployed Johnson was caught on security cameras buying a jerry can and petrol at a BP service station in Ferry Road before midnight on August 27.

He was also seen on footage approaching the front door of the church shortly after midnight and a flash of light was captured.

Johnson was also seen on CCTV approaching the temple with the jerry can and lighting paper and throwing it towards the door. He repeatedly returned to light more paper and a burst of flame was later seen before he fled.

Johnson, who was evicted from his accommodation in the city’s Duddingston Crescent the day before the fire attacks, was found with three cigarette lighters when he was arrested on August 30.

He admitted starting the fires to police. Mr Cameron said: “He further stated that around midnight he walked to the Methodist church in Leith and poured fuel on the doors before using a lighter to set fire to pieces of paper which he threw on the fuel.”

“He stated that a small fire started but quickly went out. He stayed in the immediate area for some time but no emergency services attended,” said the prosecutor.

“He further stated that he then walked around Leith for around 40 minutes and on seeing the Sikh temple set fire to the doors using the same method as before,” he told the court.

Mr Cameron said “The accused stated that his intention in buying the petrol was to start the fire at the Methodist church and that the fire-raising at the Sikh temple was not planned and was only carried out when he came across the building.”

The prosecutor said Johnson was asked what his intention was in starting the fires and said “he wanted to watch them burn down”.

Defence counsel David Nicolson said Johnson was seen by a psychiatrist who confirmed that he was fit to plead.

On Thursday, Mr Nicolson told Lord Boyd that his client hadn’t co-operated with a specialist social worker who had been appointed to write a report into his background.

He added: “I am limited by what I can say. It is very limited. The primary form of mitigation which I can advance is that he tendered a plea of guilty at the earliest opportunity. I would ask you to take that into account.”

Speaking following the sentencing, Detective Inspector Grant Johnston from Gayfield CID said: “Paul Johnson showed absolutely no concern for the safety or wellbeing of those in or around either place of worship when he started these fires.

“As a result of a swift police investigation, Johnson was quickly traced and arrested in connection with the fire and has now been given a custodial sentence.

“We treat all hate crime incidents with the utmost seriousness and whenever such offences occur, we will conduct a thorough inquiry to bring those responsible to justice.”

Lord Boyd said that if Johnson hadn’t pleaded guilty, he would have received a six year sentence.

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