A lawyer and director of a UK-based human rights organisation was arrested under controversial counter-terrorism laws after refusing to give up the passwords to his laptop and phone. He did so to avoid revealing evidence about Western complicity in a torture case. He now faces imprisonment if he does not give up his passwords by Wednesday 17 May.
Business as usual at Heathrow
Muhammad Rabbani, international director of Cage, was stopped at Heathrow airport on 20 November 2016 on his way back from the Middle East. He had just secured instructions from his client over a legal case involving torture, which allegedly involves a Western government and UK ally. Cage has been working on the case for two years and he returned with testimony and other evidence that could implicate senior officials.
Rabbani was stopped under Schedule 7 of the UK Terrorism Act 2000. This is a broad power that allows officials at borders to question individuals, without need for reasonable cause, to determine if they are involved in terrorism.
This was the 20th time Rabbani had been stopped under Schedule 7. But this was the first time he had been forced to hand over the passwords to all his devices.
He had refused previously with no repercussions. On this occasion however, officials handed him a leaflet saying it was now compulsory to surrender passwords. Rabbani said he couldn’t due to client confidentiality and they proceeded to arrest him.
Now if he doesn’t give up his password by Wednesday 17 May, he could face prison time.
It was a split second decision for me. Lawyers, journalists, teachers and others who are employed to serve members of the public can all be stopped and demanded to do the same. They can be coerced into passing over private information on their clients and beneficiaries without being suspected of wrongdoing.
The Metropolitan Police confirmed a 35 year old man had been arrested when asked about the incident but they could not divulge further details in an ongoing investigation.
The incident is reminiscent of David Miranda’s detention. Miranda was detained at Heathrow airport carrying material to assist Glenn Greenwald’s journalistic activities regarding Edward Snowden. Miranda later challenged the detention and a Court of Appeal ruled Schedule 7 unlawful to seize journalistic material.
Some may draw comparisons, and as Rabbani says: “I don’t think it’s sensible or [that] anyone would agree with government interference in the work of an independent NGO seeking redress for a torture victim.”
The organisation will now raise a test case challenging the legislation.
Bias and discriminatory law
— Klaus Bardenhagen (@taiwanreporter) May 15, 2017
Ibrahim Mohamoud, a spokesperson for CAGE, said the powers amounted to racial profiling. 88.4% of those detained come from an ethnic minority background. And only 5 out of 20,000 of those stopped in the previous year were arrested:
Clearly, huge numbers of innocent people are being interrogated and their data confiscated from them. Where is all this data being stored? With whom is it being shared? How does one remove themselves from these databases? These are some of the wider questions that Mr Rabbani wishes to raise.
Gareth Peirce from Birnberg Peirce and Partners called Schedule 7’s overuse “abusive”:
It affects almost every Muslim in ever-increasing numbers who contemplates travelling. It is not just the sheer number of Muslims stopped but that the same people are stopped repeatedly. Once on the system, you are flagged up for life.
Organisations have long lamented the invasive nature of the rule and the latest arrest is curious given the evidence in question. With the little positive impact Schedule 7 has had, it appears to be a convenient catch-all allowing authorities to do as they please. And the implications are terrifying.
– Join the twitter storm in support of Mohammad Rabbani on Wednesday 17 May.
– Join the Pass with Privacy campaign.
– Register to vote against draconian policies this election.
Featured image via YouTube screengrab