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Abusing anti-terror laws

This is a guest post by Peter Tatchell, and also appears at Comment is Free

After living an exemplary life in the UK for 14 years, Nottingham University staff member Hicham Yezza was arrested on unfounded terrorism charges and now faces the prospect of being forcibly removed to his homeland of Algeria – terminating his successful, commendable life in the UK and tearing him from his dearest friends and loved ones.

Yezza is another innocent victim of the so-called “war on terror”. Critics fear that having failed to nail him as a terrorist, the Home Office now wants to get Yezza out of the country using immigration law, to shut down the adverse publicity about his mistreatment and thwart a possible future inquiry into official misconduct.

Much to the government’s embarrassment, his arrest and that of his co-accused, Rizwaan Sabir, received widespread media coverage, including on BBC television news and on Channel Four News. There have also been major reports in the Independent and the International Herald Tribune.

What has happened to Yezza is just the latest of many perversions of justice. In the name of fighting terrorism, the government is playing fast and loose with civil liberties. Innocent people, like Yezza, are being arrested on the flimsiest circumstantial evidence. This risks bringing the legal system into disrepute and damaging public confidence in British justice.

If an innocent man like Yezza can be arrested, how many others are being detained on baseless charges of terrorism? Yezza was lucky. He was eventually released without prosecution. Are others so fortunate?

We know that the IRA bombing campaign in the 1970s and 80s resulted in terrible miscarriages of justice, such as the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four. It is therefore very likely that the present “war on terror” also has its innocent victims. Already, hundreds of mere suspects have been detained for days without charge. A panicked parliament has successively extended the period of pre-charge detention. People who have committed no crime can, nowadays, be detained for up to 28 days without charge – the equivalent of a two-month prison sentence with parole.

These abuses are alienating the already victimised Muslim community and, in effect, acting as “recruiting sergeants” for Islamist radicalisation. They are totally counterproductive.

Yezza’s ordeal is not exceptional. Since 2000, more than 1,200 people have been arrested on suspicion of terrorist involvement. Of those arrested, less than 5% have been found guilty. In the same period, nearly 180,000 individuals were stopped and questioned by the police under the Terrorism Act 2000. I am one of them. Of those stopped, only 255 were subsequently detained for terrorist-related offences. The use of this law is clearly far too random and pretty useless when it comes to apprehending actual terror plotters. It is also alienating a lot of innocent people, and their friends and family.

Thirty-one year-old Yezza has nothing in common with Islamist terrorists. His politics are democratic and progressive. He was, at the time of his arrest, the principal school administrator of the school of modern languages at Nottingham University and was highly respected by university staff and students.

His Kafkaesque nightmare began on 14 May 2008, when he was arrested under section 41 of the Terrorism Act 2000 on suspicion of engaging in the commission, instigation and preparation of acts of terrorism.

Also arrested with him was his friend and university colleague, Rizwaan Sabir, a 22-year-old postgraduate student researching terrorism in the university’s politics and international relations department.

The reason for their arrests – which was only revealed two days after they were detained – was that Yezza had on his office computer an open source, declassified, edited version of The Al-Qaida Training Manual. This is publicly available and accessible on the US department of justice website, from which Sabir had downloaded a copy for his research on terrorism. Sabir emailed the downloaded document to Yezza, who was helping him draft his PhD proposal.

The same training manual is, incidentally, advertised and available to buy in book form on – now at the discounted sale price of only $11.96.

Neither man made any attempt to hide or disguise the training manual on their computers, as would have been expected if they were engaged in a terrorist plot. The manual was clearly identified and accessible by anyone who looked at their documents folder.

This openness enabled a university staff member to notice the al-Qaida manual on Yezza’s computer. The university authorities, without consulting Yezza to get his explanation, tipped off the police. Within three hours of the training manual being sighted, the university office was swamped with police officers who were convinced they had caught the ringleaders of a secret terrorist cell.

“Someone could be forgiven, in this current climate, for panicking at [seeing] this type of document,” Yezza declared last May. “But I would have appreciated had I been given five minutes simply to [explain and] answer the questions relevant to the document.”

At the time of their arrest, neither Yezza nor Sabir were advised of why they were being held. When they asked about what had prompted their arrest, the police refused to tell them. It was summary injustice.

Following their arrest, they were detained without charge for six days – the equivalent of a two-week prison sentence with parole. Even though Sabir’s tutors, Bettina Renz and Rod Thornton, explained to the police two days after his arrest that the al-Qaida document was relevant to his academic research, he and Yezza were held in custody for a further four days.

Their homes were searched, their property seized and their friends and family interrogated at length. During their detention, they had barely any contact with the outside world.

Yezza endured nearly 20 hours of interrogation in police custody, which included in-depth questioning about intimate details of his personal life and relationships. His friends were also questioned about everything from his politics to whether he had ever worn a beard. One of the police officers who went on campus to question Yezza’s colleagues allegedly admitted: “This would never have happened had these two chaps been blond and Swedish.”

Eventually, six days later, on 20 May, both Sabir and Yezza were released without charge, following a storm of publicity and protest over the deprivation of their liberty without just cause.

University staff and students were particularly incensed by the police infringement of academic freedom – the right to examine lawful, publicly available documents for research purposes. There was also anger over the failure of the senior university authorities to defend Sabir and Yezza and to protect the right to intellectual inquiry.

With their release from police custody, Sabir’s ordeal was over, but for Yezza it was just beginning. Although he was not charged under the Terrorism Act, Yezza was immediately re-arrested, this time on charges under immigration law. His supporters have speculated that the Home Office might want him out the country to squash the furore concerning his unjustified arrest on terrorism charges and to pre-empt any embarrassing inquiry into the behaviour of the police.

A few days ago, Yezza was found guilty of deliberately giving false information at an immigration interview in 2007, when he applied for permanent residence in the UK. He is adamant that he innocently and inadvertently – not intentionally – gave a statement that contained errors. Moreover, this misinformation gave him no material gain or benefit. He had no reason to deliberately make an inaccurate statement, as he already fulfilled all the requirements needed to qualify for permanent residence in the UK. He may now face a jail sentence, as well as deportation.

“It is hurtful to see myself being treated this way in a country I love, would protect and where I’ve done everything I can to engage with and be a good citizen,” said Yezza last year. “They tried to deport me after my arrest last May, but a campaign of support led by my MP, Alan Simpson and hundreds of friends, colleagues and supporters stopped it. Having waited a few months for the media coverage to cool down, it seems like the Home Office is trying to get rid of me again,” he said.

During his 14 years in the UK, Yezza has developed close friends and deep roots in Nottingham; having served as a member of the University of Nottingham Senate for two terms (2004-05). He was also co-founder and president of the Arabic Society, editor of the influential Voice magazine for international students, and is the current editor of the political and cultural journal Ceasefire.

Yezza is not a fundamentalist or jihadi. In fact, he’s the exact opposite – a passionate defender of civil liberties, democracy and human rights. During his 14 years in the UK, as a student, university employee, writer, artist and peace activist, he has been an asset to his community and to the country at large. What malice and madness motivates our government to treat a good person so badly?

The Free Hicham campaign website sets out nine ways to help Hicham Yezza here