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Compensation for student accused of terror offences

A Nottingham University student who was arrested on suspicion of terrorism offences in 2008 has been paid £20,000 in compensation. Rizwaan Sabir, who was a masters student at the University, downloaded a document titled “The Al Qaeda Training Manual” from a US Government website as part of his postgraduate research. Mr Sabir emailed this manual along with other publicly available documents to Hicham Yezza, a member of staff at the University who was helping him draft his PhD application. When this was discovered by University officials, both were arrested and detained for six days under the Terrorism Act 2000, before being released without charge.

Yesterday it was confirmed that as well as a £20,000 settlement, Mr Sabir’s legal fees will also be covered by Nottinghamshire Police. Mr Sabir said, “For more than three years, I have been fighting to clear my name and establish that the police were wrong to arrest me and put me through the tortuous experience I suffered at their hands. I have finally succeeded in doing so, and they have been forced to account for the wrong they did to me. But I am one of the lucky ones. I cannot forget all those other innocent people like me who have suffered at the hands of the police but do not have the chance or means to vindicate their names.”

Mr Sabir brought proceedings against Nottinghamshire Police for breaches of the Race Relations Act 1976, the Human Rights Act 1998, and for false imprisonment. In a statement, Nottinghamshire Police said, “We stand by the fact that the arrest, detention and obtaining of a warrant of further detention were all perfectly legal, proportionate and necessary in the circumstances, as they were in 2008. The matter was settled without admission of liability save that the force admitted that one brief search of Mr Sabir and his vehicle, carried out in February 2010, was the result of a mistaken belief on the part of the officers involved. This was admitted in November 2010 and the force apologises for this search. Given that all litigation carries with it a risk, this modest monetary settlement was viewed as a sensible way of keeping overall costs to a minimum.” A further claim under the Data Protection Act 1998 opposed false information on police records that stated Mr Sabir has been convicted of a terrorist offence. Regarding this claim, Nottinghamshire Police said that they had agreed to amend some of the records held on Mr Sabir.

Mr Sabir’s solicitor, Michael Oswald of Bhatt Murphy, said, “Clearly the police have a difficult and important job to do in their counter terrorism role, however, they must nonetheless act within the law and must be held to account when they do not.”

Earlier this year, the University’s role in the case came under renewed scrutiny when Dr Rod Thornton, a Nottingham University lecturer, was suspended for publishing a whistle-blowing article that criticised the University’s handling of the situation. An open letter signed by 67 global academics was sent to The Guardian to say that they were “deeply concerned” by the suspension and demanded a “full and proper inquiry”. In response to the protests subsequently held in support of Dr Thornton, the University released a statement which said that academic freedom was “not the freedom to defame your coworkers and attempt to destroy their reputations as honest, fair and reasonable individuals”.

Following Mr Sabir’s compensation, the University of Nottingham stated that “this is a matter between the police and Rizwaan Sabir, who has not been a student at the University since he completed his studies here in September 2009.”

Fiona Crosby

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9 Comments on this post.
  • Peter Jones
    16 September 2011 at 01:51
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  • dan
    16 September 2011 at 11:48
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    Yeah I second Peter’s comments. The issue of Rod is still unresolved but should be by the University.

    So far one institution, the police have admitted their mistake. Next its the University of Nottingham. To do so though would be to accept some of Rod’s findings. That might be too big a pill for some of our elite (ha) to swallow. Would be nice if they led by example.

  • Mahatma
    16 September 2011 at 12:28
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    Since this happened in 2008 it is quite tragic that IMPACT is only now covering it (all due respect for the current staff who have decided to!) The University of Nottingham as a body, quite separate from its reputable members of staff and students, continues to behave appallingly and I for one will keep this issue at the forefront because it is WAY TO BIG TO IGNORE! Also, Nottingham Police have eventually begun moving towards resolving this issue = partial credit. Let’s not leave it there.

  • anono
    16 September 2011 at 13:13
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    echo the above comments in their praise of the article. Might just add that it my opinion, the arrest and subpoena for records were entirely justified. If you download manuals linked to a terrorist organisation you really should inform the authorities prior to obtaining this information just to alert them to your legitimate use of the material. However, to suggest that being arrested is a breach of one’s human rights is a sacrilegious desecration of the principles of human rights, which is only compounded by the intemperate and extreme language mr. sabir uses when describing all those who have ‘suffered at the hands of the police’. Im afraid that I am disappointed (and not for the first time) by the decision to victimise the police for what was an innocent mistake made by police under extremely suspicious circumstances. To argue that this is worth 20,000 pounds is to grossly overvalue the inconvenience suffered by Mr. Sabir.

  • dan
    16 September 2011 at 14:34
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    I am not sure you know what happened here. The document was legal, downloaded from a US Govt website. Rizwaan’s research was known about by his tutor. The problem was when the police inquired, rather than consult his tutor (Dr Rod Thornton, lecturer in terrorism), they talked to the head of dept where it was downloaded which happened to be French. Rod wasnt referred to even though he could explain any misunderstandings.

    And the reason Rod is now suspended is he wrote a paper explaining the subsequent cover-up by UoN again using publicly available emails and documents. Rizwaan was held as a terrorist suspect when in fact it could explained easily. The circumstances weren’t suspicious at all. Yet the incompetence and/or arrogance allowed this to happen. In many ways it wasnt the polices fault.

    But I would disagree that we must inform the authorities (whoever they are) before we download legal documents from the internet!

  • anono
    16 September 2011 at 15:54
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    I am, for the record, a staunch defender of civil liberties and to clarify I am not saying that Mr Sabir was in any way guilty of an offence. That said, you must admit that any file under that name is going to cause an alert on any security scan and for good reason. It silly makes sense that when downloading something so provocatively named for legitimate research, you would inform someone first. As for being held as a terror suspect, I share your sympathy for the police. My objection was not to the exposure of any university cover-up but merely to the suggestion that police officers, acting on the best possible information and in a manner consistent with the material in mr Sabir’s possession, should be accused of any wrongdoing. If you possess documents of that nature, it is to be expected that you are held as a terror suspect. You don’t have to inform any authority when you download legal material, but expect the police to behave in a suspicious manner if you do. It is not a right to avoid arrest and I hardly think the police are responsible for any cost incurred by mr Sabir. Further, I hope you will agree that intemperate language only undermines a reasonable objection by associating Rizwaan’s position with a hostile, anti-law-enforcement attitude which it does not merit.

  • dan
    16 September 2011 at 17:08
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    The file the police held was wrong as well but again as I said, it isn’t really their mistake here though you could say they could have acted quicker to release him just like they could have acted quicker to arrest him if they thought he was suspect. He was arrested 6 months after the download.

    Rizwaan’s tutor knew what he was researching and that’s where the University should have gone to check rather than a French Professor. (I will reserve comment on why this Professor got involved when he should have directed the police to Rizwaan’s tutor). The police were not to know about the University tutoring system or how research works. But the University and various departments do and they failed here.

    While I understand and to a degree accept your point about the download, I still think it is too easy to say holding, downloading or being interested in something makes you a terror suspect let alone a criminal suspect. In Rizwaan’s case, the false file, the download and University incompetence got him 7 days detention.

    Like I mentioned the issue here is the University failing to help the student. The police did a ‘reasonable’ job. The University not only failed but then led a cover-up. It will be interesting to see what Rizwaan does regarding the University.

  • Peter Jones
    18 September 2011 at 21:06
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    It seems to me to be quite apparent, from Dr Rod Thornton’s report, that the University were responsible for the wrongful arrest and unnecessary of Rizwaan Sabir.

    That the University made mistakes to the significant detriment of a student of the University is appalling in itself. That the University subsequently attempted a cover-up takes the matter into the realms of disreputable behavour and a lack of integrity on the part of the University.

    Will be interesting to see how this plays-out. Suspect that the longer the University denies an independent investigation, one independent of HE, the worse the potential outcome for the University in terms of reputational damage.

  • Kat
    19 September 2011 at 09:11
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    As far as I can tell, Sabir downloaded a legal document from a US government website, because he was studying Islamic extremism. He discussed it with his tutor, and I remember reading that the file was available in the library anyway (correct me if I’m wrong). A lot of the comments here seem to be saying that the police were just doing their job and it’s the University’s fault. I’m not saying the Uni did well but if it took the police 6 months to do anything about it, what exactly were they investigating? It seems to be the least suspicious circumstances possible. Why did it lead to arrest? As difficult as their job is, surely the police are at fault here for making an uninformed arrest?

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