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Asylum watch: Losing the plot

The treatment of 12 students branded as terrorists despite no evidence being laid against them has aroused widespread anger. A campaign on their behalf is gaining momentum across the country, writes Frances Webber

August 31, 2009
4 min read

On 8 April this year our television screens showed pictures of the dramatic arrests of 12 students – one British and 11 Pakistani – as alleged ‘terrorists’. Suspects were held spread-eagled on the ground by anti-terrorism officers on campus in Liverpool. We heard Gordon Brown assert that the police had foiled a ‘very big’ terrorist plot, while ‘Whitehall sources’ claimed terrorists were exploiting ‘lax’ student regulations (despite biometric visas and rigorous checks) to come to Britain.

All the suspects were released without charge two weeks later after a thorough investigation found no evidence. But ten Pakistani students remain in detention, in category A conditions, held by the UK Border Agency for deportation as a ‘threat to national security’. An urgent application to release the students on bail was heard on 12 May but was refused pending a full bail hearing in July – too late for them to sit their exams.

Despite rulings from the House of Lords and the European Court of Human Rights denouncing detention on the basis of secret evidence, the men remain in the dark as to the reasons for their detention and proposed deportation. One of them, Tariq Ur Rehman, returned to Pakistan on 11 June, disillusioned and disheartened about the prospects of making a future in the UK. The British government agreed to withdraw the deportation decision against him but declined to intervene to seek assurances from the Pakistani government that he would not be ill-treated. Pakistan’s intelligence services have a fearsome reputation for torturing terror suspects.

People from across the country who were angered by the treatment of the men met in Manchester in early May to set up the Justice for the North West Ten campaign (J4NW10). This held an immediate protest vigil outside Strangeways prison, and has since organised public meetings, letters, protests and other activities in Islamabad, Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield and London to draw public attention to the treatment of the men.

On 28 May, the University and College Union (UCU) conference overwhelmingly voted to support the campaign and to demand the immediate release of the students to allow them to continue their education without the threat of deportation. An early day motion (EDM 1453) has been signed by 20-plus MPs, and a letter has been signed by over 70 academics calling on the vice-chancellors of two of the institutions attended by the students to ensure they receive course materials and take their exams in prison. A packed public meeting at SOAS in London on 2 July heard a recording of the brother and father of two of the students speaking by phone from Pakistan of the hopes they carried with them to this country, and the disillusion and anger over their arrests.

The timing of the men’s arrest and detention is interesting, to say the least. The UK Border Agency (UKBA) is currently seeking to bully university and college staff to spy on students through the introduction of a points-based system that changes the way foreign students are allowed into the UK. In future, universities and colleges wishing to enrol non-EU students will have to register as sponsors, and to do this they must give an undertaking to the UKBA to report students who miss lectures. Failure to monitor students who subsequently abscond or breach conditions can lead to withdrawal of the institution’s sponsorship licence. The J4NW10 campaign is part of a wider campaign to keep immigration control out of education.

join the campaign

Campaign website

Online petition

If you are an academic (or know an academic), please write or send an email to the vice chancellors of two of the institutions at which the students were studying:

Ask your MP to support the campaign: Mohammad Sarwar, an MP of Pakistani origin, has submitted an early day motion (EDM) demanding the students’ immediate release so that they can continue their studies

Ask your organisation to support the campaign’s demands. Send messages of support to j4nw10@yahoo.com

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