The harrowing story of Rizwaan Sabir – a postgraduate student studying terrorism who was arrested for downloading an Al Qaida training manual – is testimony to the Islamaphobia that has been whipped up by politicians and the media.
Rizwaan, a student at Nottingham university, was held for almost a week without charge. He says his case shows where the steady erosion of academic freedom and civil liberties can lead.
It also shows why the government’s plans to further extend anti-terror legislation are dangerous and wrong-headed.
Rizwaan spoke to Socialist Worker about what happened and his fears for the future.
“At first when I was arrested I thought it was a joke,” he said. “I was taken to a cell and kept there all day. I kept asking why I’d been arrested but nobody would tell me.
“Later in the afternoon I was told that my house would be searched. I was photographed, fingerprinted, footprinted and a DNA swab was taken.”
The police held Rizwaan in their cells for six days and repeatedly questioned him.
“My family were trying to find out what had happened but the police wouldn’t tell them anything. The police just kept asking me the same questions. They asked me if I’d been to Pakistan, if I’d been to the North West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan, if I’d been to Iraq. They asked me if I was planning on going camping.”
Rizwaan says he thinks that the police knew he was a genuine researcher after his first interview and that they knew they had no reason to hold him.
“They said that they had to go through all the papers they had seized – this becomes a reason for detaining people for ever longer periods of time,” he said.
“When I was released I was given a statement saying that the university had confirmed that the manual wasn’t relevant to my course. I don’t know where that came from.”
Some 500 students and university staff held a protest in support of Rizwaan and his friend and university employee Hicham Yezza, who had helped Rizwaan by printing the manual.
“People read bits of the manual out in front of the media to show solidarity,” said Rizwaan. “They can do that but if I read the manual again I could be investigated further.
“I think that the clampdown is about trying to depoliticise people, but treating people like this can further radicalise them.”
Maria Ryan is a lecturer at the university who was interviewed by the police in connection with Rizwaan. She told Socialist Worker, “The police told me Rizwaan had been arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Initially I just laughed. I told them he had downloaded the manual because he was researching radical Islam.
“I explained that the manual is in the public domain. They responded that if it gets into the ‘wrong hands’ there could be problems.
“They asked me various questions about Rizwaan – what he thinks of the US and US foreign policy and what he thinks of Israel and suicide bombing.
“They also asked me some personal questions about him. How many friends does he have? Does he pray? Does he drink alcohol? Does he go to pubs?
“I had another visit from a police officer a few days later. It was clear that they had realised he was a genuine researcher.
“But there is a problem – what do you do if the law prohibits possession of certain material?
“It’s worrying that the police have such wide-ranging powers to arrest people without charge. They arrest first and investigate after. And when they realise they’ve made a mistake they don’t know what to do.”
After being released without charge, Hicham was threatened with deportation to Algeria until a last-minute reprieve last week. He now faces a judicial review.