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The New Order: When reading is a crime

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Updated: Is this what it is going to be like? When simple possession of a proscribed document will be enough to see you clapped in irons and whisked down to the local police station?

About two weeks ago (May 16), Nottingham University campus was agog as police arrived to interview former student Hicham Yezza. After some ten years' study, first as undergraduate, then graduate, Hicham was a non-academic member of staff in one of the University departments.

His mistake was to agree to help Rizwaan Sabir, a friend in the Politics faculty, who needed a document downloaded from the web and printed off. This was all part of legitimate study: the document itself was on the Politics Faculty reading list. Unfortunately, the document in question also happened to be an al-Qaeda Training Manual.

Someone noticed. They informed their superiors, who in turn referred the matter on upward. Eventually, the issue reached the very top. The Vice-Chancellor, Registrar and senior management of the University decided it was beyond them. They owed a duty of care to all their students. The implications behind the download were too large. So they handed the matter over to the local Police.

Which is where we came in. Rizwaan Sabir and Hicham Yezza were arrested. Their homes were searched, laptops confiscated, friends interviewed. They were subjected to six days of questioning - and then released. Or at least, Sabir was released. Hicham’s story now takes a turn for the decidedly worse. He is – he was – in the process of applying for indefinite leave to remain in the UK. The focus of the inquiry shifted to the possibility that he had been less than truthful in his application to stay.

So he was re-arrested under the Immigration Act and moved directly to a detention centre. From there, he is due to be deported back to Algeria this Sunday.

According to the Nottingham University Students’ Union, the deportation was originally scheduled for mid-July, but it has been brought forward as an “emergency”. As the Police appear not to have wished to charge Hicham with anything in connection with the original investigation, it is not clear what the emergency could be.

Unless he hears back from the Home Office, or is successful in being granted a judicial review of the decision today, Hicham will be sent back without having had the chance to argue his side of the matter in open court.

The story itself is staggering: from long-term settled resident, to deportee, within two weeks. But there are some features that may be worth pondering.

The die was cast when the University authorities decided not to investigate, but instead to pass the matter on to the Police. Was that the right decision? The only real grounds they had for suspecting anything to be amiss was the downloading of a book.

Of course, this very fact is now grounds for arrest. Under s.58 of the Terrorism Act 2000, a person commits an offence if they “possesses a document or record containing information”… “of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism”.

The apparent breadth of this formula was seriously narrowed in February of this year, when the Court of Appeal ruled that simple possession could not be enough for a conviction. There had to be demonstrable intent to commit terrorist acts as well. Nonetheless, the University authorities will argue – they have argued – that they had no right to take any other decision. Many have disagreed.

The role of the police is equally interesting. Supt Simon Nickless from Nottinghamshire Police claimed this operation was low-key, and the community's response to it had been "calm and rational".

In truly Orwellian style, he added: "Feedback is that people accept that this is the sort of operation that is necessary and reasonable for the welfare of communities."

Nonetheless, there remain concerns, raised by supporters of Hicham, that the police focus was prompted very much by the ethnicity of the suspect.

Perhaps the last word should go to Alan Simpson, MP for Nottingham South. He described the original arrest as a “dreadful cock-up”. The subsequent deportation was a blatant attempt “to try to justify the abuse of that power under the Terrorism Act. If we allow this to be done in our name, in our silent collusion, we become the architects of our own totalitarianism. We live in fear of speaking openly. We live in fear of enquiring and researching openly... We live in fear of the quiet unannounced knock on the door and we live in fear of our own shallowness, in terms of the willingness to stand side-by-side with each other in order to defend the very basis of an open democracy that we claim that terrorism is a threat to."

Update: The Home Office has cancelled removal directions to have Hicham Yezza deported on Sunday following an application in the High Court.

His solicitors will return to the High Court this afternoon to seek to have him released while his case is reconsidered.

David Smith, solicitor at Cartwright King, said: "We hope and trust that the Home Office will now release Mr Yezza and reconsider his case properly and in accordance with the law." ®

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