By Alia Suruliz
As a student of law, I was surprised by the extent to which English law has developed to protect a suspect from injustice and arbitrary state action: from undue detention until charged; from undue punishment until convicted; from being treated as innocent until found to be guilty. Yet the enactment of the Terrorism Acts 2000 and 2006 and similar anti-terror measures make a mockery of the traditional criminal legal system and the principle of habeas corpus.
The Terrorism Acts have created a wide ambit of offences for which police need little evidence to make an arrest. As students, we laboriously studied the minutiae of laws governing the detention of suspects, as detailed in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1894, and their accompanying Codes of Practice, yet people detained under the Terrorism Act 2000, Schedule 8 and section 41 and other provisions of that Act are not subject to any part of this Code.
Instead they are subject to the provision of those particular Acts, which considerably lighten the burden on the police to make haste in either charging the prisoner or releasing him/her expeditiously. It is incredible that today, murder or rape suspects can be held for an absolute maximum of four days before being charged or released, whilst someone held for the ambiguous offence of “encouragement of terrorism” under section 1 of the Terrorism Act 2006 (for which incidentally the usual requirement of intent is not necessary), can be detained for 28 days without being charged for a single crime.
Worse still, these Acts clearly have a discriminatory effect towards members of the Muslim faith even though outwardly they claim not to. It is a sad fact that in recent years the majority of terrorist acts have been carried out by extremist Muslim terror groups, yet when one glances through the pages of history we find many cases of religions being hijacked for terrorist purposes– Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism – few major world faiths have not at some time been affected by this malady. But this does not mean that it is the religion itself to blame nor that its members are intrinsically pre-disposed to commit acts of terror.
The recent anti-terror acts were enacted in the aftermath of September 11th and the July 7th bombings and therefore clearly had Muslim terrorists in mind. A government scheme known as Preventing Violent Extremism (‘Prevent’) is more explicit – “a new action plan to step-up work with Muslim communities to isolate, prevent and defeat violent extremism”, or as Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty put it, “the biggest spying programme targeting the thoughts and beliefs of the innocent in Britain in modern times.” The Guardian investigation also highlighted the fact that Muslims were specifically being targeted just by virtue of their religion, such as in one London borough where people working with youngsters were asked to highlight which were Muslim.
Many innocent Muslims have been detained for days and weeks on end on the basis of barely-there evidence for behaviour which would have been unquestioned in a non-Muslim, such as the possession of a book which touches on the topic of jihad or militant Islam; let’s be honest, isn’t this a subject which everyone is interested in right now? The case of Rizwaan Sabir highlights this problem and is one of the many cases which lead Muslims to legitimately fear that normal uncontroversial actions on their part will be misconstrued by those around them due to a prejudice which leads people to assume that Muslims are more likely to be terrorists.
Sabir was researching for his masters thesis on terrorism (incidentally a topic which the government is very interested in for obvious policy reasons) at Nottingham University, when he was arrested for downloading a publicly accessible al-Qaeda training manual from a US government website, and detained without charge for 6 days. Sabir’s MA supervisor Rod Thornton stated his possession of the manual was legitimate in view of his research interests.
There is still a lot of goodwill in the Muslim community towards the government and the greater British community; many want nothing more than to be good, peaceful citizens who are contributing to society. Such incidents challenge that goodwill, and rumours of spying and heavy-handed behaviour towards Muslims does much to bring into question whether the rest of society even wants us to be part of it. Government projects like Prevent and the much-lauded but totally irrelevant Quilliam Foundation, which target Muslims qua terrorists, are not necessary to promote anti-terrorist behaviour. There have been encouraging incidents such as in the Isa Ibrahim case where the local Muslim communities in Bristol approached the police themselves about potential terrorist activity where there was genuine reason to warrant such concerns. This is very positive, and not only engages with the Muslim community as a partner in the fight against terrorism, but is also more targeted and, therefore, far more effective than seeking out “potential extremists” in each and every Muslim.
Sabir himself sums the situation and solution up well: “To build bridges, the British government must rethink the prejudiced manner with which it views young Muslims… Fighting militancy and violence is a serious problem that must be confronted. But spying on innocent people and viewing them with deep antipathy and suspicion because of their faith is not the way to do it. The government must stop viewing all Muslims as potential terrorists or individuals that have an innate potential to resort to violence. Only then can work on rebuilding a bridge between British Muslims, the police services and the government recommence.”
Alia Suruliz is a graduate of Arabic and Islamic Studies from the University of Cambridge. Having converted to Law, she will be working as a trainee solicitor in a major city law firm in London. During her student life she was active in numerous student-led initiatives and served as head of a student society. She has also been active in wider grassroots projects and organisations. Currently she is volunteering with a Human Rights organisation in Geneva.
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