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On 8 April, as the flak over the police role in the death of Ian Tomlinson reached a peak, the newspaper front pages were stolen by the announcement that 12 men in the north west of England, mostly Pakistani students, had been arrested under anti-terror laws. Backed by the prime minister, security officials claimed a major Al Qaeda plot had been foiled. Within two weeks, however, all of the men had been released without charge – though this didn’t stop the government seeking to deport ten of them on the grounds of ‘national security’.
The events will be painfully familiar to many students of Nottingham University, where on 14 May last year Rizwaan Sabir and Hicham Yezza were arrested on suspicion of terrorist activity. Though found innocent of terrorism, Yezza (‘Hich’ to his friends) remains in custody on a nine-month sentence for immigration offences. He potentially faces deportation.
HM Prison Canterbury refuses to pass on Red Pepper’s letters. So Rizwaan Sabir and Musab Younis – co-editors of Ceasefire magazine alongside him – spoke to us about his case and its significance in light of recent events.
How do you know Hich?
Musab: Hich was well known on campus. He edited Ceasefire, and I met him at an editorial meeting. He’s been at the university for over ten years. Coming from Algeria as an undergraduate student, he subsequently did postgraduate studies here, and then got a job at the university. He’d been on the student union executive, the university senate – he’s the kind of guy who knew everyone and was well liked.
Rizwaan: I met Hich after a Palestine protest on campus. We worked on the same corridor and our acquaintance turned into friendship.
So how did you both come to be accused of terrorism?
Rizwaan: He was very clued up on history and politics, so I started asking him for help on my assessed work. I shared articles with him, and asked for advice on whether it was useful to reference certain types of documents for my academic studies. At the time, I was researching my MA dissertation, which was about the Al Qaeda insurgency in Iraq. Around 24 January that year I downloaded the ‘Al Qaeda Training Manual’ – which can be purchased on Amazon! I had downloaded it from the US Department of Justice website for my research. I saved the document, and sent Hich a copy.
Months later, on 14 May, we were arrested under section 41 of the Terrorism Act – for ‘the commission, preparation and instigation of acts of terrorism’.
What happened once you had been arrested?
Rizwaan: We were held for six days without charge. There was questioning every day, and my house got raided. My family were evicted for 24 hours as forensics experts went through everything. It was all a harrowing and disturbing experience, but one that highlights the systemic flaws in the way the security apparatus are permitted by law to conduct their operations.
Then what happened, after Hich was cleared of the terrorism charges?
Musab: He was immediately re-arrested – we didn’t even get a chance to see him. It’s similar to what’s happened to these 12 men in the north west. We heard he was going to get deported in the next few days, and set up our campaign with 10 to 15 people working 24/7 on preventing it happening.
What kind of support did you get?
Musab: Huge amounts of support on campus, because Hich was well known. Also, people were shocked and angry at the circumstances, and the way the immigration authorities and the police thought they could just whisk him out of the country, without any kind of hearing.
They tried to deport him without trial?
Musab: Absolutely. We had to fight to get a trial. We heard he had gone into detention on a Thursday, and the deportation was scheduled for Monday. We got in touch with lawyers to get an emergency injunction. It worked. We stopped the deportation and asked the Home Office to release Hicham from custody while they reconsidered the case. They refused, and we had to go to an immigration tribunal to seek bail for Hicham. This was successful. A month after his arrest he was finally released on bail.
What was the experience like for Hich?
Musab: It was very stressful, very unexpected, because he clearly hadn’t done anything wrong. He expected to be released quickly, and refused legal support because he thought that once he’d explained to the police what was happening they’d release him.
He’s back in prison now – what for?
Musab: The recent arrests put this in context. We feel the government’s policy is if they arrest a foreign national under terrorism powers and they can’t file charges – if the person is innocent – their policy is to deport them. The immigration charges they brought were manufactured and political, and that was very much the opinion of our local MP, Alan Simpson. They have charged Hich with ‘avoidance of immigration action by deceptive means’. That’s something we are disputing. We also have serious problems with the way his trial was conducted and we’re launching an appeal.
How is Hich doing now?
Musab: He’s doing well. He’s not the kind of person who will wallow in self pity. He is very lively and amusing character, and is busy in there and his spirits are strong. He has a good legal team behind him, and we’re still all determined to fight the deportation.
What have conditions been like at the university since the arrests?
Rizwaan: It has become a very hostile environment. There has been a general clampdown on political expression, and this affects academics
Musab: The terror arrests themselves created a climate of fear and paranoia on campus, especially when people found out this was to do with Rizwaan’s political research. It felt like they were targeting political activists.
What are your feelings on the recent terror arrests in the north west?
Musab: It compares very closely, almost identical in fact. They were arrested under spurious terrorism charges, but then because they’re foreign nationals the government tries to deport them. Both events created a climate of fear in the communities they took place in. I’m from Manchester, and know people in Cheetham Hill, and I was also here in Nottingham. Within the Muslim community and also within the student community there’s fear and anger over the way the government is dealing with this. The Free Hich campaign is determined to link with other groups supporting people like the north west 12, and fight this policy.
Rizwaan: When I found out all 12 were innocent I was very angry. I saw the news breaking on TV when they were arrested – I heard them talking about the ‘imminent threat’ and how they’d ‘thwarted’ an act of terrorism. And I thought, this is nonsense. It’s an ‘intelligence-led’ operation, which usually means very flimsy evidence.
So do you think this is a much broader political issue than a few police mistakes?
Musab: Absolutely. The spotlight has been on how police behave at protests recently. But the issue is much broader than that. The issue is the way the police, the home office, the intelligence services, parliament and their whole counter-terrorism strategy is fundamentally flawed. It is clearly not reducing the threat of terrorism but is catching innocent people and ruining their lives.
Rizwaan: The Muslim community has been facing such demonisation, and such pressure from the security services. Rather than countering radicalisation it’s achieving the contrary. Public opinion is against the police. If you look at Cheetham Hill, people don’t trust the police – and why should they trust them? Why should I trust them? When I was in detention, I was no more than a statistic. Not everyone is as lucky as Hich, not everyone could organise that much support. People sent back to countries in the Middle East and south Asia – predominately Pakistan – get picked up by the intelligence services and get tortured.
What can be done about it?
Rizwaan: I’m fortunate. I allowed the experience to make me a stronger person, and not disrupt my education. Resentment is something I do feel, but the question is how we use it – some channel it through violence, some through civil society. I’m with the latter. The legislation needs to be changed. The ambiguity, the overzealous wording and the police’s power trip – all this combined jeopardises free speech, free inquiry and journalistic freedoms.
Musab: With the right organisation and the social movements that are building up, we can create a coalition that can fight this and win.
n For more information on how you can support Hicham Yezza visit www.freehicham.co.uk and www.ceasefiremagazine.co.uk
The Easter terror raids were not the first in the north west. Earlier this year, Lancashire police arrested nine men travelling with the Viva Palestina aid convoy. All were subsequently released without charge. A few years earlier, police claimed to have detained a terror cell targeting Old Trafford. All turned out to be guilty of nothing more than being Muslim and Manchester United fans. The latest baseless raids have sparked a (perhaps belated) reaction that moves coalition-building against this ugly aspect of the war on terror forward a step. A series of public meetings across Manchester in recent weeks drew together an array of left organisations, alongside the Muslim and Pakistani communities, to voice opposition to the deportations and begin exploring how to create an effective opposition to the anti-terror laws.