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When the police replace librarians

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An issue that refuses to go away is whether some academic research now needs a license from the local police. Regular readers may remember the case of Hicham Yezza and Rizwaan Sabir, which we reported on in May.

This kicked off when Mr Sabir, a postgraduate student at Nottingham University, asked Mr Yezza to help him out by downloading a document described as an “Al Qaeda Training Manual”.

Bad move. The matter was reported to the University authorities, who informed the police. They arrested the two and held them for the best part of a week. At the end of that time Rizwaan Sabir was released but Hicham Yezza was transferred to the custody of the immigration authorities for deportation. Inquiries had turned up some irregularities in his status.

Outwardly, this is unfortunate but explicable. The University authorities decided that they were not a competent body to investigate, so involved the police, and the police did their job. Events hinge on section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which makes it an offence to possess material that might be useful to someone planning to carry out terrorist offences. But never fear, “it is a defence for a person charged … to prove that he had a reasonable excuse for his action or possession”.

In the course of the year, various courts have applied their minds to what might constitute a “reasonable excuse”, with much debate about whether “reasonable” means any reason that is, well, reasonable – or simply any reason that is not a terrorist reason. Read the judgment in R v. G to work out whether a paranoid schizophrenic delusion may nonetheless be considered “reasonable” for the purposes of this law.

A small storm in a teacup was kicked off by the Times, when their reporting of one judgment led to a sound rap across the knuckles from the DPP.

What then of our students? Initial events may have pursued their own inevitable logic.

It is what follows – and the entire thrust of the law - that is questionable. First, the law: If you possess dodgy material, it is for you to explain why. Parliament could have legislated the other way around - it could have made it a crime to possess such material “with intent”. But it didn’t, so now you must prove yourself innocent.

Following Mr Sabir’s release, the police wrote to him. Allegedly, they warn that he risks re-arrest if found with the manual again and add: "The university authorities have now made clear that possession of this material is not required for the purpose of your course of study nor do they consider it legitimate for you to possess it for research purposes."

This is all very peculiar, and oddly reminiscent of the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ (aka Prisoners, Temporary Discharge for Health Act 1913), a response to the unsportsmanlike tendency of some suffragettes to go on hunger strike whilst in prison. Multiple deaths would have been a PR disaster. So this Act allowed prisoners to be sent home to fatten up, before being returned to custody.

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