Research into Islamic terrorism led to police response

May 22, 2008

A masters student at the University of Nottingham who was arrested under the Terrorism Act under suspicion of possessing extremist material was studying terrorism for his dissertation, Times Higher Education can reveal.

Academics and students have expressed concerns about the police’s handling of the case, which saw police searching campus property.

Rizwaan Sabir, a 22-year-old who was studying in the politics department, was arrested along with a 30-year-old member of staff. Both were released without charge on 20 May after having been held in custody for six days.

Mr Sabir’s lawyer, Tayab Ali of McCormacks solicitors in London, told Times Higher Education that as preparation for a PhD on radical Islamic groups, Mr Sabir had downloaded an edited version of the al-Qaeda handbook from a US government website. It is understood that Mr Sabir sent the 1,500-page document to the staff member - who was subsequently arrested - because he had access to a printer. Mr Ali said: “The two members of the university were treated as though they were part of an al-Qaeda cell. They were detained for 48 hours, and a warrant for further detention was granted on the basis that the police had mobile phones and evidence taken from computers to justify this.”

The case highlights concerns that new anti-terrorism legislation allowing detention for 28 days without charge would lead to people’s being held for extended periods on the “flimsiest of evidence”, Mr Ali said.

“Why did it take so long for the police to reach the conclusions they did?” Mr Ali asked. “These are not unqualified police, they are the top counterterrorism command for the region. They should know the difference between a book that is useful for terrorism and one that is not.”

Academics at Nottingham have expressed deep concerns about the arrest’s implications for academic freedom. Bettina Rentz, a lecturer in international security and Mr Sabir’s personal tutor, said: “This case is very worrying. The student downloaded publicly accessible information and provoked this very harsh reaction. Nobody tried to speak to him or to his tutors before police were sent in. The whole push from the Government is on policy relevance of research, and in this case the student’s research could not be more policy relevant.”

Alf Nilsen, research fellow in law and social sciences, said: “What we’re seeing here is a blatant attack on academic freedom – people have been arrested for being in possession of legitimate research materials. How can we exercise our academic freedom if we are at risk of being arrested for possession of subversive material? This sets a very alarming precedent. Academic freedom on campus should be guaranteed for all staff and students regardless of their ethnic or religious backgrounds.”

Dr Nilsen added: “I perceive the current incident at Nottingham to be occurring in tandem with several other attempts by UK authorities to increase surveillance of the academy and, in particular, non-Western students and staff, and moreover as an episode that is symptomatic of a more general curtailment of civil liberties in UK society, which seems to particularly affect and victimise non-Western citizens.”

Students at Nottingham are circulating a petition asking for the university to guarantee that the freedom of academics and students will be protected. It asks the university to acknowledge its “disproportionate response” to the possession of legitimate research materials.

A spokesman for Nottingham confirmed that the police had been called after material was found on the computer used by a junior clerical member of staff. “There was no reasonable rationale for this person to have that information,” he said. “The police were called in on the basis of reasonable anxiety and concern. In response to that, the police made a connection with a student who, we understand, was impeding the investigation and arrested that person.”

He added that the edited version of the al-Qaeda handbook was “not legitimate research material” in the university’s view.

A Nottinghamshire police spokesman said the police had applied for a warrant to extend the detention. “The judge was satisfied with the evidence presented and granted the extension,” he said.

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