No wonder so many young Muslims are angry and radicalised
By Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner
London – 25 February 2009
After living an exemplary life in the UK for 13 years, Algerian-born Nottingham University staff member, Hicham Yezza, was arrested on unfounded terrorism charges. He became another innocent victim of the so-called “war on terror” and of its flawed logic that security and liberty are incompatible.
Hicham’s story symbolises what can go wrong in a climate of fear and suspicion, when over-zealous authorities jump to conclusions and suspects are arrested before their reasonable, rational explanations are sought and considered.
Much to the government’s embarrassment, Hicham’s arrest and that of his co-accused, Rizwaan Sabir, received widespread media coverage, including on the BBC and Channel 4 News, and reports in The Independent and the International Herald Tribune.
What happened to Hicham is just the latest of many perversions of justice. In the name of fighting terrorism, the government and police are sometimes playing fast and loose with civil liberties. Innocent people, like Hicham, are being arrested on the flimsiest circumstantial evidence. This risks bringing the legal system into disrepute and damaging public confidence in the British justice.
If an innocent man like Hicham can be arrested, how many others are being detained on baseless charges of terrorism?
Hicham 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 Guilford 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.
Hicham’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 five per cent have been found guilty under anti-terrorist laws. 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, as are Walter Wolfgang and Tony Benn. Of those stopped, only 255 were subsequently detained. The police have a difficult job. They can’t always get it right. But the use of this law is clearly far too wide and random, and not very effective 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 Hicham Yezza, has nothing in common with Islamist terrorists. His politics are democratic, liberal 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 because Hicham had on his office computer an open-source, declassified, edited version of The Al-Qaeda Training Manual. This is publicly available and accessible on the US Department of Justice website, from which Rizwaan had downloaded a copy for his research on terrorism. Rizwaan emailed the downloaded document to Hicham, who was helping him draft his PhD proposal, with a request that he print it out.
The same training manual is, incidentally, advertised and available to buy in book form on
Amazon.com – now at the discounted sale price of only $11.96.
Neither Rizwaan nor Hicham 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-Qaeda manual on Hicham’s computer. The university authorities, without consulting Hicham 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 ring-leaders of a secret terrorist cell.
This was a poor judgement by the police. Nottingham University teaches an MA on International Security and Terrorism, a subject that Rizwaan was studying with the approval of his supervising academic staff. In these circumstances, when the police were alerted to the existence of the Al Qaeda document on university premises surely they should have realised that it might relate to course work and teaching modules, or at least they should have sought an explanation from Rizwaan and his tutors. They did not. Well, not until two days later.
“Someone could be forgiven, in this current climate, for panicking at (seeing) this type of document,…But I would have appreciated had I been given five minutes simply to (explain and) answer the questions relevant to the document,” Hicham told me with obvious disappointment.
At the time of their arrest, neither Hicham nor Rizwaan 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 Rizwaan’s tutors, Bettina Renz and Rod Thornton, explained to the police two days after his arrest that the Al-Qaeda document was relevant to his academic research, he and Hicham were held in custody for a further four days. This strikes me as both unnecessary and unjustified.
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.
Hicham 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’s ever worn a beard. One of the police officers who went on campus to question Hicham’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 Rizwaan and Hicham 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 Rizwaan and Hicham and to protect the right to intellectual inquiry.
“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 Hicham.
During his now 14 years in the UK, Hicham has developed close friends and deep roots in Nottingham; having served as a member of the University of Nottingham Senate for two terms (2004-5). 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.
Hicham is not a fundamentalist or jihadi. In fact, he’s the exact opposite – a passionate defender of civil liberties, democracy and human rights. 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 has a website setting out “How to Help: Nine Ways to Help Hich,” plus how you can make a donation towards Hicham’s fight for justice.