Manchester United supporters have been helping Iraqi Kurdish refugees who were wrongly accused of plotting to bomb Old Trafford.
On 19 April 2004, over 400 police officers conducted dawn ‘anti-terror’ raids across the UK and arrested ten people on suspicion of the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism. Within hours, the arrests were connected to an Al-Qaida plot to blow up Old Trafford – the home of Manchester United Football Club. Police sources were quoted in newspapers as saying ‘the plot involved several individual bombers in separate parts of the stadium’.
Six men and a woman were arrested in Manchester and three men were arrested in Staffordshire, South Yorkshire and the West Midlands. They were identified as North Africans and Iraqi Kurds. They were all held for eight days and then released without charge. One of the men was to be deported and six others were arrested on other matters and then bailed.
Rebaz Ali and Shadman Sofi, both Iraqi Kurds, were two of those arrested and detained. Their ‘connection’ to an alleged plot to blow up Old Trafford came from ‘evidence’ found at their home – a Manchester United match fixture list, t-shirts, posters and old ticket stubs. The reason the men had these items in their possession is that both men were simply life-long supporters of Manchester United.
Hand of friendship
On hearing of their story, the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association (IMUSA) decided to meet up with Rebaz and Shadman and take them to a match. IRR News asked Andy Walsh of IMUSA why the organisation offered the hand of friendship to Rebaz and Shadman. ‘We all read the press reports about the arrests which indicated the men were United fans,’ he told IRR News. ‘However, their only connection was that United memorabilia was found at their home. We thought that it was shocking that men who had fled Iraq because of threats to their lives – they were terrorised people themselves – should be targeted by the police. These two guys did nothing wrong at all, other than support United.’
Rebaz and Shadman were both very grateful that IMUSA had contacted them and were excited about going to a match with the group. Shadman told Andy that, initially, when he was arrested, he had not been bothered as he knew he had nothing to hide. However the allegations that they were planning to blow up Old Trafford had amazed and upset him, as nothing was further from the truth. Rebaz, who was a professional footballer in Iraq, told Andy that the allegations were deeply disturbing and distressing and an affront to his ‘fair play’ morals as a sportsman.
Andy Walsh also told IRR News that ‘a lot of United supporters were very frightened by the arrests. There was a heightened sense of fear of the foreigner, especially as the police had targeted a particular section of the community. Which is why it was so important that IMUSA and the wider community showed its opposition to the arrests, which simply targeted people because they come from a different country and their skin colour is different. This is not acceptable.’
Two weeks after the arrests, Greater Manchester Police officers met with the Kurdish community and issued a joint statement: ‘We discussed the negative community implications of media coverage of the background of those detained being of Iraqi Kurdish origin, including the fact that Greater Manchester Police confirmed those details… The police regret the impact this has had on the wider community.’ However, the police have refused to apologise for their actions, which is what the men are demanding. The reputations of the men have been blighted and now, because of their association with ‘terrorism’, the men have lost friends from their own community, as they do not want to be tarred with the same ‘terrorist’ brush.
IMUSA is assisting Rebaz and Shadman in their quest for a public apology and have arranged a meeting at the House of Commons with two Manchester United-supporting local MPs, Tony Lloyd and Terry Lewis.