Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Nottingham student to be deported for accessing 'terrorism manual' on US government site

On the face of it, this story about a student being arrested and marked for imminent deportation because he dowloaded a research document - described by the Gaurdian as 'the al-Qaida training manual' - from a US government website, should be of concern not just to academics, students and university administrators, but to every citizen. The government's repeated leaning on universities and academics to report any student that might possibly engage in suspicious behaviour showed shades of Mao's cultural revolution and the former eastern bloc communist states. But few outside of the civil liberties community took them too seriously because of the "it could never happen here" mindset and the relatively benign and generally welcoming nature of the UK and its governing infrastructure.

It is difficult to know for sure, without complete details of the case, what parameters in particular led to the authorities' decision to deport the man at the centre of this controversy. Inevitably, though, when paranoia and fear are widely promoted, as they have been by politicians and the media in the wake of the 11th September 2001 attacks, innocent people suffer. Friends of Hicham Yezza, the student facing deportation, have set up a website to campaign for his release.

Polly Curtis and Martin Hodgson at the Guardian say:

"A masters student researching terrorist tactics who was arrested and detained for six days after his university informed police about al-Qaida-related material he downloaded has spoken of the "psychological torture" he endured in custody.

Despite his Nottingham University supervisors insisting the materials were directly relevant to his research, Rizwaan Sabir, 22, was held for nearly a week under the Terrorism Act, accused of downloading the materials for illegal use. The student had obtained a copy of the al-Qaida training manual from a US government website for his research into terrorist tactics.

The case highlights what lecturers are claiming is a direct assault on academic freedom led by the government which, in its attempt to establish a "prevent agenda" against terrorist activity, is putting pressure on academics to become police informers.

Sabir was arrested on May 14 after the document was found by a university staff member on an administrator's computer. The administrator, Hisham Yezza, an acquaintance of Sabir, had been asked by the student to print the 1,500-page document because Sabir could not afford the printing fees. The pair were arrested under the Terrorism Act, Sabir's family home was searched and their computer and mobile phones seized. They were released uncharged six days later but Yezza, who is Algerian, was immediately rearrested on unrelated immigration charges and now faces deportation...

A spokesman for Nottingham University said it had a duty to inform police of "material of this nature". The spokesman said it was "not legitimate research material", but later amended that view, saying: "If you're an academic or a registered student then you have very good cause to access whatever material your scholarship requires. But there is an expectation that you will act sensibly within current UK law and wouldn't send it on to any Tom, Dick or Harry."

At its annual conference next week the University and College Union will debate a motion on "assaults on academic freedom by the DIUS [Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills]". Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU, said: "If we really want to tackle problems like 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."

The higher education minister, Bill Rammell, said: "The government does not want to or has never asked for staff or students to spy on their colleagues or friends. We want universities to work with staff and students on campus to isolate and challenge the very small minority who promote violent extremism.""

I suspect Mr Hicham Yezza and his friends and colleagues at Nottingham will derive little consolation from such sophistry on the part of the minister, who as someone in charge of Higher Education, should know better. Could I suggest the minister read ( or re-read?) Professor Ian Loader's letter to Tony Blair when he was the Prime Minister advising him about balance in the criminal justice system.

Update: The Resistance Studies Network at the University of Göteborg are suggesting academics should protest by downloading the manual. They provide a link containing the files but the DOJ has now removed the manual from its website.

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