The Institute of Race Relations publishes today a catalogue that details how hundreds of Muslims have been arrested under terrorism powers before being released without charge; how the special powers granted by parliament to tackle terrorism are being deployed in other spheres, such as in routine criminal investigations or in the policing of immigration; how the media have become ’embedded’ in a process that leads to the stigmatisation of Muslims as terrorists.
Yet the facts show that most convictions secured in an open court under the 2000 and 2001 Terrorism Acts have been of non-Muslims.
In the most detailed study yet of Britain’s use of anti-terrorist laws since 11 September 2001, the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) has examined 287 out of the 609 arrests made so far. Harmit Atwal, author of the study, said: ‘There are two criminal justice systems in Britain today. In the first, under the ordinary rule of law, there is a balance between the rights of the citizen and the rights of the state. But in the second, under the special provisions of anti-terror laws, you can be arrested, questioned and publicly accused of being a threat to civilisation on the thinnest of pretexts, detained without fair trial and go slowly mad in the cells of Belmarsh, Woodhill or the immigration detention centres. The first system applies to white Britons. The second system applies to foreign nationals and, increasingly, British Muslims too.’
The huge gap between the number of arrests and the number of convictions under anti-terrorist laws (only fifteen convictions have so far been secured) is already well known and confirmed by this study. In numerous cases, there is a great media fanfare as the police herald the arrest of a so-called terrorist cell, only for the case to be quietly dropped days, weeks or months later. In some cases, suspects face up to fourteen days of questioning by police and intelligence officers before being released. In other cases, they are charged with all manner of terrorist offences, only for these charges to be dropped just before coming to court or thrown out by a judge soon after reaching court.
Often, there are what appear to be deliberate leaks from the police and/or intelligence services to the press at the time of the arrests. Not only may this prejudice any potential trial, it also serves to damage the reputations of innocent individuals. The subsequent admission that those arrested had done nothing illegal hardly registers at all in the media.
Examples of such arrests, documented in the study, include:
- Algerian Lotfi Raissi, his wife Sonia Raissi and brother Mohammed Raissi were arrested in London in late September 2001 in connection with the World Trade Center attacks. Lotfi spent five months in prison before extradition proceedings to the US were rejected in court for lack of evidence.
- British Muslim Sulayman Zain-ul-abidin was arrested in London in October 2001 and charged with being a fundraiser for Islamic Jihad, a proscribed organisation under the Terrorism Act. He was acquitted by an Old Bailey jury the following year.
- Six British Muslim men were arrested in January 2002 in Darlington, Redcar, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool on suspicion of fundraising for Islamic terrorist groups. All charges were dropped after a year-long investigation.
- Four Turkish men were arrested boarding a ferry at Dover in March 2002 and charged with supporting the PKK, a proscribed organisation under the Terrorism Act. They were acquitted when the case was brought to court.
- Seven British and Turkish men were arrested in London and Cheshire in December 2002 on suspicion of involvement in fundraising for the DHKP-C, a Turkish political party. The trial collapsed after the defence produced a letter from the Home Office stating that the organisation they worked for had never been proscribed under the Terrorism Act.
- Eight Algerian men were arrested in Edinburgh and London between December 2002 and February 2003 and charged with a range of terrorism offences. In December 2003, the CPS decided to take no further action against the men but their names remain on a public MI5 list of al Qaida suspects.
- Two Kurdish men, Soner Koyuncu and Gultekin Onur, were arrested in Cumbria in December 2002 on suspicion of supporting the PKK, a proscribed organisation under the Terrorism Act. Both walked free after the CPS said there was insufficient evidence.
- British Muslim Shazad Ashraf was arrested in London in June 2003 and was allegedly found in possession of ‘combat books, quasi-military information and tactical planning material’. The allegations were withdrawn when the CPS offered no evidence.
- Noureddine Mouleff, an Algerian, was arrested in November 2003 along with four other Algerians and charged with ‘possession of items in connection with terrorism’. He later walked free from court after it emerged that the dangerous device in his possession was a rucksack containing batteries and wires.
- Four British Muslim men were arrested in Dudley, Walsall and Luton in December 2003 and charged with, among other things, receiving training in the making of chemical and biological weapons. A sum of money, thought by police to be funds for terrorist activity, was also seized from Dudley Central Mosque during a police raid. Four months later all charges were dropped and the money returned.
- Ten Iraqis and North Africans were arrested in April 2004 in Manchester, Staffordshire, Yorkshire and the West Midlands on suspicion of involvement in a plot to bomb Old Trafford football ground. Details of the alleged attack plan were leaked to the media, making for extensive coverage. The men were held for eight days of questioning; yet no terrorism charges were brought. It later emerged that the so-called terrorists were ardent Manchester United fans.
The low conviction rate of those arrested points to the excessive and discriminatory use of arrest powers against Muslim communities. This is further supported by the discrepancy between the religious background of those arrested and those convicted. While almost all of those arrested are Muslims, the majority of those so far convicted appear to be non-Muslims. The IRR has documented eleven of the fifteen convictions under anti-terrorist laws since 11 September 2001. Only three Muslims have actually been convicted under the 2000 Act and two of them have been given leave to appeal their convictions. Six of those convicted under the Terrorism Act 2000 are white and were convicted for offences such as wearing a ring or carrying a flag with the symbols of banned Loyalist organisations. The 2000 Act makes it illegal even to wear a T-shirt supporting a banned organisation. A further two non-Muslims have been convicted under the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001, one for sending a racist letter containing white powder to the office of Mohammad Sarwar MP.
Since arrests under anti-terrorist laws attract widespread media coverage while convictions of non-Muslims in court have not been widely reported, most people are left with the impression that the criminal justice system is successfully prosecuting Muslim terrorists in Britain. The reality is that large numbers of innocent Muslims are being arrested, questioned and released while the majority of those actually convicted in an open criminal trial are non-Muslim.
Extending anti-terrorist powers
Another aspect of the discriminatory use of anti-terrorist powers is the charging of Muslim individuals with terrorist offences, following their involvement in routine criminal offences. In a number of cases, Muslims who have been involved in crimes such as credit card fraud or forgery have also been charged as suspected terrorists. In this way, the police have, it seems, used the extra powers available under terrorism legislation against ordinary criminal suspects. This is a worrying trend in which powers granted by parliament to the police specifically for tackling terrorism are extended to other spheres in a discriminatory way (only Muslim criminal suspects receive this treatment).
What this study further illustrates is the extent to which anti-terrorist powers are often used, in effect, as an alternative way of policing immigration. One in eight of the cases studied was of an individual who had been arrested on suspicion of terrorist-related activity and then later handed over to the immigration service. Again, since anti-terrorist powers were introduced on the pretext of responding to a particular issue – international terrorism – and police powers were hugely enhanced for this purpose, their application to other areas of crime (or even to legal activity, such as seeking asylum) is cause for great concern.
The IRR has spoken to solicitors representing some of those who have been arrested under the Terrorism Acts and then subsequently re-arrested by the immigration service. A number of individuals in this situation are still being treated as though they were national security cases although they have not been officially charged under anti-terrorist legislation. Most of them have not faced any other criminal charges yet are still being held in prisons as security risks pending deportation. There are reports that some have attempted suicide. Many will be detained for months, even years, before being deported. Like those detained without trial at Belmarsh under the 2001 Terrorism Act, they are serving a prison sentence for being a suspected Muslim terrorist, rather than a convicted one.