It was during the exam period this summer that Rizwaan Sabir and Hicham Yezza were arrested on campus under Terrorism Act 2000, and were held in custody for six days, before being released without charge. A document had been found on Mr Yezza’s computer: the ‘Al-Qaeda training manual.’
I first met Hicham ‘Hich’ Yezza as a fresher, during a meeting for the political magazine he edits; it was hard not to like him. At his editorial meetings he suggests thought experiments, teases incisive ideas out of his fellow writers and debates with flair. He often shares his knowledge of philosophy, literature, politics and art, commenting perceptively at any opportunity.
When he was arrested along with Rizwaan Sabir (another familiar face on campus) we had very little idea of where they had been taken and why. As the facts slowly seeped out, fear among his friends and many in the student population began to rise. Many among us are studying terrorism, or are Muslim, or hold strong political views. Our two friends, similar in their religious background, their peaceful political activism and their scholarly interest in international relations were suddenly to be criminalised and associated with one of today’s greatest crimes: terrorism.
At the end of January this year Rizwaan, a post-graduate student, downloaded the Al-Qaeda manual from the United States Department of Justice website (where it remains to this day) in preparation for a PhD in radical Islam and its strategies in conjunction with the MA dissertation he was writing on the subject. He sent the document electronically to Hich, who was Principal School Administrator for the School of Modern Languages. ‘I hadn’t read it, nor printed it,’ Hich tells me. ‘I was helping Riz with the drafting and finessing of his PhD proposal.’
Five months later, the document was noticed on Hich’s office computer desktop by a colleague, who decided to report it to the Registrar’s office. The University made the decision – it is still unclear how – to immediately report this to the police. And so the counter-terrorism unit arrived on campus.
Both Hich and Rizwaan were incarcerated for six days while officers impounded their computers and searched their homes and their friends’ homes. They were repeatedly interrogated – about their beliefs, their politics, their work at the University, their journalism and their friends.
Meanwhile, a University spokesman reiterated police statements that there was ‘no risk to the university community or to the wider public.’ The police operation, he said, was ‘necessary and reasonable.’ Without being charged, both men were eventually released.
The University has since clarified its position: ‘[We] had to make … a straightforward risk assessment. Our responsibility to University students and staff, and our public duty … led us to the conclusion that there needed to be an investigation.’ They explain that they were ‘concerned’ with Hicham’s possesion of the document and that ‘in any circumstances…discovery of such material – being held for non-academic purposes by a clerical member of staff – would prompt reasonable anxiety.’
But should such ‘anxiety,’ developing – one imagines – from perceptions of the risk of an ‘extremist threat,’ warrant the involvement of counter-terrorism police on campus? ‘It’s alarming,’ Hicham tells me, ‘that someone with my track record isn’t given a chance to explain the presence of a document on his computer… something that could’ve been easily established with a five minute discussion.’
The University’s ‘risk assessment’ – however ‘straightforward’ – did not seem to take into account Hich’s thirteen years in and around the University as an undergraduate, a PhD student, as General Secretary of the International Students Bureau, as an elected member of the Students’ Union (SU) executive, and of the SU council. He has also been editor of two on-campus publications and was previously a member of University Senate. ‘As has been said, there was clearly no imminent or serious danger surrounding me,’ highlights Hich, ‘but many have concluded my ethnic and religious backgrounds seemed too forbidding and people didn’t want to “take any chances” in the way they would’ve done with a white, non-Muslim person.’
The government, which has issued guidelines on ‘extremism on campus’, advises universities that ‘any action taken must be a reasonable response to the perceived or actual threat and must be proportionate to the situation. HE institutions need to be able to show that any decision has been based on consideration of all available information and is sound.’
So what of the document itself that has caused the University such anxiety? Available for download, or in a lengthier edition available from Amazon, excerpts from the manual can also be found at our very own Hallward library, as one lecturer testifies.
As the University rightly says, much has been said of academic freedom. In an effort to clarify the situation, the Vice Chancellor coolly explains: ‘It is clear that there is no “right” to access and research terrorist materials. Those who do so run the risk of being investigated and prosecuted on terrorism charges. Equally, there is no “prohibition” on accessing terrorist materials for the purpose of research. Those who do so are likely to be able to offer a defence to charges (although they may be held in custody for some time while the matter is investigated).’
Understandably, this statement has provoked high-profile replies. One professor writes: ‘Let it be noted: the vice-chancellor of a prominent university in Britain has caved in to the culture of fear.’ Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the University and Colleges Union says: ‘If we really want to tackle problems like violent extremism and terrorism then we need to be safe to explore the issues and get a better understanding. The last thing we need is people too frightened to discuss an issue or research a subject because they fear being arrested or reported.’ Academics who publicly read the manual outside the Hallward library say it is ‘boring’ rather than dangerous, whilst staff who specialise in terrorism studies have made it clear that the manual is completely appropriate to the study of terrorism. The University itself has met with Rizwaan (‘it was more like a telling off,’ he says) but apparently issued no apology in relation to any aspect of the ordeal.
I asked Rizwaan what he thinks of the University’s decisions. ‘Had the document that I’d downloaded been downloaded by a Mr John Smith’, he tells me ‘and sent to a respected “clerical member” of staff with an academic nature called Kate Smith, would the university’s response have been the same? I think not!’
In this sorry tale, it seems clear who has have suffered most. Rizwaan is now questioned and searched every time he leaves the country and lives under the constant feeling of being watched; ‘I feel, despite my innocence and no charges brought against me, that people do not trust me because of the label associated with me – terrorist.’ Meanwhile, after Rizwaan and Hicham were released, Hicham was immediately rearrested under immigration charges. He was served with a fast track deportation order to Algeria, his home country, giving him and his friends but a few days to pull together a legal team and a campaign preventing his deportation. Alan Simpson, Nottingham South MP, stated at the time in no uncertain terms: ‘I can see no reason for an emergency deportation other than to cover the embarrassment of police and intelligence services.’ As he addressed the biggest demonstration ever on campus, delivering a rousing speech in the pouring rain, he stated unequivocally: ‘If Hich had been white – if he had been blond – he would not now be standing alone without the support of the university.’
Did the university take any action to stop the fast-track deportation? ‘A very short and anaemic letter,’ Hich tells me, ‘was belatedly sent by the Vice Chancellor to the Home Office asking for “due process”. This was after my deportation had already been stopped by my legal team. I’m very sorry to say no offers of help or support of any kind have been forthcoming from the University itself since my arrest on May 14.’ Pensively, he adds: ‘I’m hopeful that this might change. It would be a great show of solidarity if the University authorities added their voice to those of thousands of their students and staff.’ The ‘Free Hich’ campaign has gained extensive national and international media coverage and continues as quite a phenomenon: its website has registered more than 60,000 visitors and counting.
I ask Hicham: what next? In a warm voice, he replies: ‘I urge the university authorities to adopt a more constructive approach, the University belongs to all of us and its reputation and standing are our common concern. There is now a serious issue of trust between the university authorities and the academic community that needs to be restored.’
Camille Herreman is currently an organiser in the Free Hich campaign. For more information see http://freehicham.co.uk/
Full university statements can be seen on the portal at www.nottingham.ac.uk