Under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, British police and border officials are allocated sweeping powers that allow them to stop, search and hold individuals at airports, ports and international rail stations with or without suspicion. The purpose of granting such extraordinary powers is to ‘determine’ if someone is concerned with the preparation, instigation and commission of terrorism (as vague as that may be). The danger that arises is that officials may abuse these powers: stopping people for arbitrary reasons or gathering information to further the pursuit of other politically motivated goals, or that the police, in exercising their powers, will aggravate and marginalise already disenfranchised communities, inadvertently making the United Kingdom a less safe place to live. One troubling development is that under Schedule 7, the police are empowered to demand passwords to phones, laptops and other electronic devices. Refusal to share passwords can lead to an arrest. Police and border officials can then access private documents that relate to the traveller, or private information of others that the traveller is holding on trust.
In a one hour interview, Muhammad Rabbani, the international Director of the NGO Cage, discussed both the validity of these laws and how they are currently being abused. The focus of the discussion was Rabbani’s own experience under Schedule 7. Not only has he been stopped more than 20 times, but last year he was stopped, arrested and later convicted for refusing to handover his passwords. As he explained, he was happy to cooperate and answer any questions that related to himself. However, because Rabbani is trusted to protect confidential information, some of which relates to victims of torture and may be used in lawsuits against Western governments, it is essential that he keep this information confidential.
The interview began with Rabbani explaining his role in Cage, and what Cage does for the community. From the outset, it was clear that Rabbani was primarily concerned with defending the rule of law. As he explained, Cage helps to protect the rule of law by shining a spotlight on its violation. This often includes advocating on behalf of vulnerable people who have found themselves on the wrong side of state violence. Through Cage, survivors of state torture can be put in touch with lawyers and find support networks. Victims of state violence can also be given a voice by being assisted in telling their story in a way that is truthful, accurate and honest. As Rabbani explained, Cage works as an advocacy group that intervenes on behalf of people and also influences the general conversation around terrorism, violence and how society interprets violent acts to encourage conversations that move beyond the politics of fear and scaremongering.
Shining a spotlight on the violation of the rule of law may also explain why UK border officials were intent on targeting Rabbani. Cage recently revealed that Rabbani was protecting Ali al-Marri, a man who is now accusing the US Government of torture and other cruel and inhumane treatment. Cage has also named six US agents who the organisation alleges were implicated in torturing al-Marri, and recently published 35,000 documents which they say support this claim. When stopped at Heathrow Airport, if Rabbani had given the officials his passwords, they would have had advance access to this material (it is common knowledge that British officials share information with US allies).
The underlying objective behind Schedule 7 is to allow officials to prevent the preparation, instigation and commission of terrorism. However, under Schedule 7, Rabbani and many others are stopped for reasons unrelated to any reasonable suspicion that they will engage in violent acts. Addressing this issue, Rabbani noted that of the more than 20 occasions he has been stopped, he is always asked the same questions and after much hassle, allowed to enter the UK. The issue is, if the authorities generally believed that he was a threat, they should take action. As they never do take any meaningful action, the logical conclusion is that he is not a threat. This begs the question, why is Rabbani continually stopped, detained and questioned by UK border officials and terrorism police?
On the occasion that Rabbani refused to disclose his passwords, the authorities did take action. They arrested him and later secured a conviction in a magistrates’ court. However, the very fact that Rabbani’s trial took place in a magistrates’ court is reason to pause. The magistrates’ court is a venue that typically deals with the most minor of offences. The most typical offence that is prosecuted in a magistrates’ court is a driving offence. Crimes that society has deemed to be of the utmost seriousness - such as rape and murder - can only be tried in the Crown Court. As offences that are destined for the magistrates’ court are deemed to be the most minor of offences, magistrates have limited sentencing powers and are not bound by the same rules of evidence that exist in the Crown Court. The irony is that the Government is effectively saying: due to the threat of terrorism, we need extraordinary powers to protect the public. However, the people who are to be targeted by these powers should receive a trial in a court that only deals with the most minor of offences (magistrates’ sentencing powers are limited to a maximum sentence of six months in prison). What should be demanded from the Government is consistency. If we are indeed under siege and the extraordinary powers granted under Schedule 7 are necessary, then, when people are arrested, they should be tried by jury in the Crown Court.
While this commentary is taking issue with the way in which the Government is exercising its power under Schedule 7, on 3 May 2018, Rabbani was in the High Court arguing a different point. Challenging his conviction for refusing to provide the passwords to his devices at a Schedule 7 stop, he argued that first, the Prosecution should be compelled to adduce evidence as to the reason for stopping him; secondly, Schedule 7 lacks sufficient safeguards to protect confidential and special procedure material; and thirdly, that no offence arises from refusing to give passwords so as to protect confidential material. Challenging the legality of Schedule 7, Rabbani’s lawyer, Henry Blaxland QC, argued that “Schedule 7 powers are coercive and intrusive and violate article 8 and 10 of an individual’s human rights.” Lord Justice Irwin and Mr Justice Foskett reserved their judgment.
As a concluding point, Rabbani made an important observation. He argued that Schedule 7 may have undesirable consequences for public safety, such that the police are actually making the UK a less safe place to live. Discussing his own experiences of being detained, Rabbani noted that he has a level of maturity that allows for him to cope with and process the ordeal. But what about young people whose first contact with terrorism police is whilst being arbitrarily detained in an airport? As Rabbani said:
“But what you guys have to understand is that if I were an eighteen year old and this is my first contact with authority and this is the way you treat me, how is that productive? How is that actually serving the purpose of avoiding or stopping terrorism? You are alienating people, you are aggravating them. You are actually creating enemies. You are creating a generation of disaffected young men, typically, you know. So, anyway, those are some of the structural problems.”
The overriding argument made by Rabbani is that Schedule 7 is an unjust law that is not having the desired effect – the prevention, preparation, instigation and commission of terrorism. Indeed, while the police and border officials are constantly exercising their Schedule 7 powers - arbitrarily stopping, questing and detaining people - it is rarely the case that they arrest and convict anyone. The police are nevertheless afforded the opportunity to profile and collect data on innocent people. One of the many benefits of living in a democracy is that citizens can challenge their government. Cage does just this - it challenges the UK Government on its use of oppressive laws through advocacy and court challenges.
The full interview with Muhammad Rabbani, conducted by Devin Frank, Amanda Flanaghan and James Godfrey, will be published in a future issue of the Birkbeck Law Review.