Living in a Shadow of Perpetual Suspicion

Open Society Foundations

Recent revelations in the UK’s Sunday Observer newspaper have reignited the controversy surrounding the 2008 arrest and detention of Rizwaan Sabir, a PhD student of counter-terrorism who was held without charge for seven days after he downloaded the al-Qaida training manual from a U.S. government website during his time as a postgraduate student at the University of Nottingham.

Sabir, then aged 22, had downloaded the publicly available document from the U.S. Justice Department website whist conducting postgraduate research on al-Qaeda and terrorist tactics. The same document is available in a book format from high street book shops and can also be loaned from the University of Nottingham’s library. After being questioned for seven days and six nights, he was subsequently released without charge, and without apology. Sabir eventually brought legal proceedings against the police and in September 2011 police paid full legal costs and damages for his treatement. 

Now, a West Midlands Police Professional Standards internal investigation has revealed that during the course of the investigation into Sabir, codenamed ‘Minerva’, officers from the West Midlands Counter-Terrorism Unit who led the investigation simply invented claims about what Nottingham University terrorism expert, Dr Rod Thornton, had told police in his official statement. Sabir has said that evidence was ‘made up’ simply because the police were trying to justify the arrest. The case has now been referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) for investigation but the Standards Board, says that no officers will be investigated or disciplined for misconduct.

While Rizwaan Sabir’s experience has rightly caused a furore over police counter-terrorism powers and practice, little has been said about the on-going disproportionate use of stop and search on Muslim communities under the powers of the Terrorism Act 2000, particularly at ports and airports.

The Open Society Justice Initiative recently interviewed Sabir (see video above) as part of research on the impact of ethnic profiling across Europe. For the past three months, researchers have been interviewing people in the United Kingdom, France, Netherlands, and Spain, trying to capture the human experience of being subject to this kind of treatment by the police, and the effects these have had on their everyday lives.

Sabir has been stopped over thirty-five times, with 15 stops since his arrest in 2008. On four occasions, he was stopped and searched in ports and airports under Schedule 7. He describes the feelings of anger and fear that these stops can generate because the power does not award people the right to remain silent or legal assistance whilst they are being questioned by police

David Anderson QC, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, again raised concerns last month about the use of Schedule 7. Schedule 7 provides stop and detention powers in ports and airports where ‘examining officers’ are able to stop, question and/or detain people, without the need for any reasonable suspicion, to ascertain whether they are involved in acts of terrorism.

Schedule 7 is a highly contentious power because it operates outside the regulatory framework that governs police powers of stop and search. Individuals stopped under the power are not under arrest but can still be examined for up to 9 hours, during which time they may be questioned, searched (including their belongings), strip-searched and have samples of their DNA & fingerprints taken from them, regardless of the outcome of the encounter and in the absence of a lawyer. If individuals refuse to cooperate, they can be charged and prosecuted for obstruction.

Black and minority ethnic groups make up the majority of those that have been subjected to Schedule 7 stops even though they account for a small minority (approximately 10 percent) of the national population. Asians accounted for 30 percent of Schedule 7 stops (and 5 percent of the national population), Blacks accounted for 9 percent of stops (and 3 percent of the population) and people from other ethnic groups (including Chinese and ‘mixed race’) accounted for 20 percent of stops (but only 3 percent of the population).

The targeting of black and minority ethnic groups continues to be even more marked when we consider Schedule 7 stops that lasted over an hour). Of those, 46 percent were of Asians, 15 percent were of blacks and 24 percent were of ‘other’ ethnic groups. Fewer than 15 percent of stops were of whites.

Lord Anderson raises concerns about the ethnic disproportionality of these stops particularly given the low arrest rate coming out of Schedule 7. 1.4 percent of Schedule 7 leads to arrest and a much smaller number for actual charge and conviction in relation to terrorism. Lord Anderson notes that he has “not been able to identify from the police any case of a Schedule 7 examination leading directly to arrest followed by conviction in which the initial stop was not prompted by intelligence of some kind” as opposed to “risk factors, intuition or the ‘Copper’s nose.’”

In June 2011 for the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that “for some Muslims, these stops have become a routine part of their travel experience, and that―this power is silently eroding Muslim communities ‘trust and confidence in policing.’”

Those on the receiving end of Schedule 7 stops report: intrusive questioning over social, religious and political views or community activities; the taking of their bio-data despite not being under arrest; officers refusing to wait the arrival of a solicitor before conducting the search and questioning; the stress caused to the person stopped and to those travelling with them, as they worry about missing flights or losing baggage; and the seizure of mobile phones and credit cards.

All this has created feelings of alienation and a sense in which some minority ethnic groups are being treated as “suspect communities.” Some individuals even choose to travel from distant airports so as to avoid what is thought to be the greater risk of being stopped at the local airport.

Those who don’t experience this type of ethnic profiling can be quick to dismiss it as a necessary evil that keeps us safe. However, this fails to appreciate the impact on those being stopped that are, for example, walking to school, commuting to work or even at an airport for the start of a holiday. As communicated by Sabir and the dozens of people we spoke to, Schedule 7 is much more than a simple inconvenience.

Ethnic profiling exacts a high price not only on its victims, who feel targeted and ultimately rejected because of the colour of their skin or religious beliefs, but also for police officers, who must contend with increasingly hostile communities whose personal experiences inevitably reduces the chance of community cooperation with law enforcement bodies.

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