From student to suspected terrorist
I’m standing outside the Mabel Tylecote building to meet former MMU politics graduate, Rizwaan Sabir. Sabir is a human rights campaigner and a PhD student at the University of Bath, where he is researching UK counter-terrorism. I am here, however, to talk about his experiences of being arrested as a suspected terrorist whilst researching terrorism at the University of Nottingham. I start by asking why he was arrested.
“In December 2007, I downloaded a document called the Al Qaeda training manual from the United States’ Department of Justice website for my research on terrorism and sent it to my academic mentor, Hicham Yezza. I never realised that using this document would convert me from student to suspected terrorist”.
Hicham Yezza is the Editor of a secular, left-wing political magazine and was a member of staff in the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures at the time. On May 12th 2008, Yezza was ill and absent from work. His computer was accessed by his manager who saw the manual that Sabir had sent him. She reported Yezza to Senior Management, which, Sabir says, “led the Registrar to pick up the phone and call the police, without conducting a risk assessment.”
As outlined by the government, universities are advised to conduct risk assessments by internally investigating alleged extremist activity before contacting the police. Sabir describes the university’s actions as “knee-jerk and reactionary” since the appropriate protocol wasn’t heeded to.
I ask Sabir how he was arrested and, without thinking, he reels off an account as if he was arrested recently:
“Like every day, I arrived on campus. There was University security outside of Yezza’s office, but when I enquired, I wasn’t told anything so I tried to make contact with Yezza via phone. Eventually, he called me back. I told him that there was security outside of his office and he said he would make his way to campus. Just after this, three non-uniformed officers followed me into the Gent’s toilet and detained me for the purpose of questioning. I was taken into an unmarked police car, questioned, and within 30 minutes, I was arrested under Section 41 of the Terrorism Act 2000 on suspicion of being involved in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism. I was taken into custody, held for 7 days and faced daily interrogation. My family were evicted and my home was raided. This was all because of a book, which, by the way, can be bought from WH Smith’s or borrowed from the university’s library.”
On May 20th, Sabir was released from custody without charge. He tells me that he was not released from custody because the police thought he was innocent, but instead, because the offence which the police wished to charge him under was being debated in the Court of Appeal and thus a charge could not be brought against him. “I have written evidence that the police would charge me as a terrorist if I was arrested in similar circumstances to 2008. What have the police learnt?”
In the week I interviewed Sabir, Asim Kausar from Bolton was sentenced for two years under Section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which makes it illegal for a person to possess any document thought to be “useful to a person committing an act of terrorism”, even if it can be purchased from Waterstones. This includes documents ranging from A-Z maps to army manuals. It does not require substantial evidence that an individual is involved in extremist activity. Kausar said he downloaded the documents out of “curiosity and a thirst for knowledge”; arguments which were dismissed by the court. Sabir told me that if the Court of Appeal was not debating the Section 58 offence whilst he was in custody, he, like Kausar, would most likely have been convicted too.
On his release, Sabir described his solitary confinement as “psychological torture” to The Guardian. I asked him to elaborate: “Psychological torture is pain and suffering of the mind and soul, which affects you physically. You lose emotion and a sense of reality. You feel powerless, frightened and terrified. It’s a classic Kafkaesque scenario”.
He told me that such a technique was purposefully employed by the officers: “I was told by the officer who arrested me that a person from Leeds was serving a 15 year prison sentence for having a copy of the document I had downloaded. This was untrue, but at the time I believed him. I was being told this because the police were trying to make me confess to things I hadn’t done. Trying to mentally coerce an individual by using psychological pressure is psychological torture in my opinion”.
Sabir argues that the stereotypical understanding of a modern terrorist had a role to play in the way he was treated: “I fit the stereotype of the modern Muslim terrorist; I have brown skin, wear a beard and I’m involved in politics. Campaigning for secular human rights issues doesn’t hold weight when you’re a Muslim”.
When I asked what advice he had for others who could encounter something similar, he said: “Speak against injustice but remember that the draconian laws of the UK could mean that you could end up in prison when you least expect it, so be prepared. Sadly, the ‘war on terror’ has undermined due-process and subverted the rule of law”.
A three year legal battle against the police concluded in September 2011 when Sabir was awarded £20,000 in damages for false imprisonment. When asked if the money compensated for what had happened to him, he responded: “I have been partially vindicated and the world now knows that I’m not a terrorist. But no amount of money can compensate for the tears of my family”.
The legal settlement has not ended Sabir’s campaign for vindication. Nottingham University lecturer Dr Rod Thornton exposed the university’s actions by writing a whistleblowing paper, and was suspended in May 2011 until present. Sabir described Thornton’s paper as a “forensic dossier that makes very serious evidence-based allegations that must be thoroughly investigated”.
I end by asking Sabir what his future plans are: “To campaign for a public inquiry at Nottingham University, to help Rod in this difficult time, whilst working to increase police accountability and transparency, and, I guess, finding my destiny”.