Guilty until proven innocent: Muslims and Britain’s anti-terrorist legislation

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Sabia Hanif

Jumada' al-Akhirah 18, 1424 2003-08-16

Islamic Movement

by Sabia Hanif (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 12, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1424)

Terrorism is not new to Britain: its past is marked by IRA threats, riots and bombings. Nor does this problem belong to a remote past. Relatively recent attacks, for example the IRA’s failed attempt to kill PM Mrs Thatcher (a bomb at Brighton’s Grand Hotel during the Tory party conference in 1984) and also the 3,000lb IRA bomb-explosion in Manchester on 15 June 1996, which injured more than 200 people, are proof of that. In the eighteen months before September 2001 eight bombs went off on the British mainland, planted by the Real IRA. Yet the British government has decided that terrorism is a new problem, and introduced the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 (ATCSA) in reaction to September 2001.

Britain’s easily recognised problems do not receive attention from security forces as Muslims at large do because of this Act. Even the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO) , an Iranian nationalist group that is proscribed under the Terrorism Act 2000, gets more consideration. In June ten members of the MKO set fire to themselves in protest against raids on it at various sites in Paris. Yet the MKO is monitored by ordinary police at their demonstrations, whereas respected human-rights groups such as the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) get the anti-terrorism police at theirs. The reason is clearly Islamophobia: a prejudice imbedded in the government’s policies which reflects hatred of Muslims, and violates human rights.

The Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 has been condemned by human-rights groups and lawyers for violating the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Why, then, has this issue not had the widespread coverage in the media that it deserves? One reason is that it mostly affects only one section of the citizenry: the Muslim minority. The Act followed the Terrorism Act 2000, which was also heavily criticised. As a result of ATCSA’s provisions, there is widespread denial of human rights that are acknowledged worldwide.

ATCSA is presumably intended to protect people’s liberty and lives, and make Britain secure, yet paradoxically, by taking away civil liberties, the Act itself does exactly the opposite. It gives fewer rights to those merely suspected of terrorist offences, than to others charged under the criminal law.

Lawyers argue that the new provisions mean that the presumption of innocence does not apply to suspects; they are assumed guilty and have to prove their innocence. Thus this Act, according to Mudassar Arani, a solicitor who deals with anti-terrorism cases, "breaches EU Human Rights [article 5], and there is also denial to lawyers, fair trial for non-UK residents, and with no restriction for the press". She went on to say that "heavy reporting [of cases] means there is a pre-judgment even in the jury, which only increases the chance of a wrongful conviction." Loaded reportage was recently seen in the demonisation of Abu Hamza, who, despite not being convicted or charged with any crime, has been called the local bin Ladin by media and politicians alike. Arani sees him as a scapegoat. "They couldn’t capture Bin Laden and settled for a look alike... This is not acceptable."

The roots of the problems with this Act lie partly with the suspect-profile that this legislation is based on, and the grounds for suspicion, which are so outrageous that they prove the official and popular paranoia.

One of the most ridiculous grounds for suspicion that Arani has come across is of an elderly man, a law-abiding British citizen, who had recently suffered a heart attack that had affected his speech. He was driving home, and was stopped by the police, questioned and interrogated: his only ‘crime’ was that he had a beard. He was so traumatized, finding it difficult to speak, that he broke down in tears. Such cases are not unusual. Another man, a Muslim van-driver, was held by police at gunpoint at night because of the style of his Muslim attire.

Other clients of Arani’s include four men who were on their way to the mosque to pray on a Friday, when they found themselves surrounded by armed policemen, and ordered to put their "hands up". They complied, yet the police set their dogs on the men. The men fell flat on the ground. The dogs returned to the police officers, who deliberately set the dogs on the men again. The dogs bit the men’s legs until they were ordered off.

When taken to the police station, the men received no immediate medical aid. They asked for a first-aid kit, cleaned their own wounds and tried to cover the tears with plasters. Eventually the doctor on call at the police station examined them and said that their injuries were so serious that he could not treat them. The men were taken to hospital, where their injuries were stitched. They were detained for 36 hours, then released without charge. Surely the increase in these sorts of cases shows how the Acts have created mistrust and alienation, and can only create more difficulties for community relations. Both the 2000 and 2001 Acts increase non-Muslims’ mistrust of Muslims, especially those Muslims wearing hijab, sporting a beard or wearing distinctive clothes, as well as Muslims’ mistrust of non-Muslims.

According to Arani, "Many arrests have been made, where mere dress code identifies you as a suspect". Yet the attacks of September 2001, in reaction to which this act was passed, were allegedly perpetrated by men who were clean shaven, had girlfriends, and had been seen at bars. They had facilities like several identities, passports, finances, and were well organized, yet the British (and American) security forces are trying to fight such people by searching mosques, targeting imams with long beards, and harassing asylum-seekers (who often have no passport, let alone several). Such profiling ignores the fact that the vast majority of Muslims abhor terrorism anywhere.

This profiling is only proof that Islamophobia is an undercurrent of governmental policy. The Islamophobia handed down in legislation by the government seeps into all dealings with Muslims. This is no exaggeration: the new search powers have lead to unprecedented raids on mosques; the police have even asked banks to monitor mosques’ accounts. Cases such as that of a London branch that referred a mosque cheque of £30,000 for a business contractor to the police are not rare.

Pre 9 /11 precedents

According to the Terrorism Act 2000, section 57, "A person commits an offence if he possesses an article in circumstances which give rise to a reasonable suspicion that his possession is for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism". This has led to ludicrous arrests. Suleyman Zain-ul-abidin was the first victim: he was detained for over 10 months on the suspicion of offering weapons-training over the Internet. The main evidence against him was a few newspaper reports about Usama bin Ladin in his possession. He was cleared of terrorist charges in August 2002, and told the jury that he was a "trophy" and "scapegoat" for September 11.

Freedom of speech is also affected by this act. Muslim groups that are struggling to free their lands are labelled terrorists instead of freedom-fighters, meaning that the police have enough grounds for suspicion to arrest one just for verbal support. This fear of expressing an opinion has prevented Muslims from even challenging the Acts. It seems that Muslims are either too afraid of being labelled as "supporting terrorists", or have accepted the line that the Acts are necessary because there is a state of emergency.

Legislating against Muslims: Britain leads the way

The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 strips any British citizen with dual nationality of UK nationality if he or she is thought to be a threat to British interests. This has left British residents with dual nationalities insecure and vulnerable. It does not combat terrorism, as the guilty are not punished and the innocent not cleared by trial. Many Muslims hold dual nationality, so this penalises them further and erodes their supposed equality before the law.

Furthermore a new bilateral extradition treaty, signed in March with the US by David Blunkett, the home secretary, leaves everyone vulnerable to immediate extradition without recourse to British courts. The determining factor in the way this treaty affects British nationals is the criteria for suspicion used by the US government. The US is targeting anyone even vaguely Muslim, so Muslims are once more victims of uncontrolled hatred and prejudice.

Under the provisions of the new treaty, in effect those "suspected" are extradited to the US. Before, the suspect could challenge such extradition in court; now it is up to the US to list who they want and the suspect must appeal against the home secretary’s decision. The certification is based on secret information which is not disclosed to the detainees and which therefore cannot be challenged by them or their lawyers. Had this treaty been in force at the hearing of the Algerian pilot Lotfi Raissi (arrested on September 21, 2001), he would have been extradited, and might have faced the death penalty.

Raissi was detained for five months in Belmarsh high security prison, and then acquitted when a judge ruled that there was no evidence whatsoever to connect him with terrorism. Amnesty International’s report denounced his conditions of detention; he had been held in "high security" in Belmarsh, south east London, and has spoken about his five-and-a-half month "living nightmare". AI said that: "The US authorities’ reasons for seeking Lotfi’s extradition included the fact that his identity and profession fit a certain profile: an Algerian man and a Muslim, a pilot and a flight instructor in the USA." Raissi could potentially be put through worse ordeals still because of this new treaty. The treaty is retrospective, and people who have already proved their innocence in court can be extradited on the same or similar charges.

What future for Muslims in Britain?

Arani and other solicitors are very worried about Muslims, and that "innocent people are being handed... [to] the mercy of the US"; they are suspicious of US justice. Osama Daneshyar, a barrister, has commented that "the US has no respect for human rights and is uncivilized". The US has not so far been able to punish the perpetrators of September 2001, and it is time that someone explained to Bush that the hijackers are dead, that they too were killed. The US is still trying to take vengeance, and in its rage anyone vaguely fitting the profile will do. Arani expects the new laws to lead to "gross miscarriages of justice", because this system does not protect the individual nor allow the charge to be challenged in court, which was some sort of safety-net before.

The main argument of human-rights campaigners and lawyers alike is that there is no real problem that needs new legislation; the criminal law is sufficient. Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of IHRC, believes that we need to "fight the causes of terrorism, and go and look deeper than just rhetoric"; and he comments that "No society can afford to demonize a minority... Where action is necessary we need to use the existing criminal justice provisions."

Lawyers and human-rights activists agree that the criminal legislation was sufficient, and that the 2000 and 2001 Acts have led to alienation and disenfranchisement of Muslims, so that being a Muslim means being a potential suspect, and "suspicion" has created a climate of mistrust. The only thing these members of the Muslim community disagree about is who the real beneficiaries of this Act are. Answers to this question include far-right groups such as the BNP (who are demonising Muslims to serve their racist agenda), groups like the MKO (who enjoy relative freedom because they are "fighting Islam"), and David Blunkett, who, under the pretence of doing something about terrorism, is helping the government to justify the wars on Afghanistan, Iraq, and probably other Muslim countries soon.

There is also discussion about who is losing most as a result of these Acts: the British taxpayer (because legal expenses are mounting) or the Muslim community. Whatever the answer, the Muslim community is being victimized, and ATSCA affects their civil liberties and political rights. Can there be any justification for legislation that is in effect almost` creating Muslim concentration-camps, where non-UK nationals are held indefinitely without trial or charge? According to one report, thirteen suspects are being held at Belmarsh high security prison in London under the 2001 Act.

Some of these detainees have been in custody without charge for 18 months. Conditions at Belmarsh are notorious. In May a Muslim woman, Parveen Sharif from Derby, was charged with aiding terrorism: i.e. failure to disclose information about acts of terrorism. The main evidence against her was that she is the sister of Omar Khan Sharif, one of the alleged British suicide-bombers. She was held at Belmarsh prison, which is an all-male high security prison in South London, where she was put into a special secure unit (SSU), held in solitary confinement for six days without natural light, and denied physical exercise.

When asked what the legislators have failed to take into account when drawing up the Act, Osama Daneshyar replied: "The legislators have failed to take into account that Britain is a democracy", where everyone is supposedly equal. Massoud Shadjareh points out that by allowing extradition of "suspects" to the US, where they face the death penalty, the treaty contradicts British values. So the Act fails to measure up, not only legally but because of its implications. It has encouraged the media’s demonisation of Muslims, resulting in increased hostility to the Muslim community, so assumptions have been regurgitated, stereotypes have been reinforced, and Islamophobia goes unchallenged.

[Sabbia Hanif has just completed an internship at the Islamic Human Rights Commission, London, UK.]

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