On 14 May 2008, Rizwaan Sabir was arrested and detained for seven days under the Terrorism Act. The reason: downloading an Al-Qaeda training manual — copies of which can be freely purchased from high street book stores for under £20.
Three years later, having been cleared of all charges and despite bringing legal action against the police — who apologised and settled out of court to the tune of £20,000 in compensation — Sabir feels the battle is far from won. Speaking to The Journal in Glasgow, where he is now a PhD candidate at Strathclyde University, he expressed strong views on UK counter-terrorism policy, Islamophobia and radicalisation as well as the accountability of British universities.
At the time of his arrest, Sabir was doing a master's at the University of Nottingham. The training manual he downloaded from a United States Department of Justice website was to be used as a reference for his dissertation and as preparation for starting a PhD in international terrorism.
In December 2007, he emailed the text to his academic mentor, Hicham Yezza. Five months later, the document was discovered on Yezza's computer by a colleague to whom the academic had given access to his computer while he was off sick. The find was immediately reported to the university's registrar, who, Sabir claims, then contacted the Nottinghamshire Police without following the guidelines issued by the government in 2007 on how to deal with just such an instance.
The police, assisted by the West Midlands Counter-Terrorism Unit, mounted a joint investigation codenamed Operation Minerva. On 12 May, Yezza's office in the university's Trent Building was searched by police. Two days later, both men were arrested on campus by counter-terrorism officers under section 41 of the Terrorism Act 2000, on suspicion of being involved in the "commission, preparation or instigation of terrorism".
They were taken the the Bridewell Custody Facility in Nottingham's city centre, where they were held for seven days in solitary confinement and repeatedly interrogated. After the first bout of questioning, the arresting officer asked Sabir if he knew a man named Khalid Khaliq. Sabir denied having any knowledge of Khaliq, and was informed that the latter had been jailed for 15 years after being found in possesion of the same training manual found on Yezza's computer. But the officer omitted key details of Khaliq's case — namely, his close ties to several of the 7 July suicide bombers.
Sabir told The Journal that he was submitted to "psychological torture" during his detainment, describing a disorienting, 'Kafkaesque' ordeal. "I realised I could be following a similar fate to Khaliq, even though I was an innocent student," he says. "I felt powerless, and this made me angry and frightened."
Throughout his time in confinement he was too scared to pray for fear it would be used against him. "I was afraid that the police would interpret my practising of my religion as a sign of my radicalism," he says. Upon his release, he was so overwhelmed with relief that he says he just "broke down".
While Sabir was in custody, his family was evicted from their home so that police could carry out a search of the premises. Officers seized a variety of Sabir's personal effects, including academic material, music, photographs and clothing. "I've got a thing for crazy T-shirts," he says. "I had one that was 'Don't Panic, I'm Islamic', and that was used as evidence. The other one was 'Free Palestine'."
Sabir commends the police's professionalism during the search, grateful for their offer to put his family up in a hotel while they carried out their investigation. But he feels that the government has used the threat of terrorism to go above and beyond the law and to unnecessarily investigate its citizens without their knowledge.
"The point is that because we are allegedly in a state of perpetual insecurity, the government feels that it can ignore and sideline those rights and civil liberties because of the threat from terrorism," he told The Journal. "Any response should follow the protocols of human rights which this country champions all over the world.
"We take the law of the land to be something that will be fair and proportionate, and any response needs to be in accordance with [that]. It's as simple as that."
Sabir feels that he was a victim of institutionalised Islamophobia, and that post-9/11 society has tends to immediately associate acts of terrorism with religious and especially Islamic extremism: most recently in the immediate aftermath of the Norway terrorist attacks earlier this year.
A UK national of Pakistani descent, Sabir describes himself as a well-educated Muslim, well-integrated in British society. Sabir believes that he was targeted because of his faith — and that this fact leaves every Muslim in Britain vulnerable to the same treatment. "You're innocent until proven Muslim," he says. "If anyone finds out you are Muslim — whether you look Muslim or not — you are potentially an enemy of the state... that's what my experience tells me."
The targeting of specific individuals is, he claims, an issue that will only exacerbate the already-strained relationship between minorities, the state and the wider community. Moreover, he feels that the common belief that universities are breeding grounds for extremism is a damaging misconception. "The claim that universities are incubators of terrorism has been categorically rejected by every individual involved in the higher education sector of the UK, including Scotland.
"Universities UK, [the] Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the NUS, the Federation of Student Clubs and Societies and numerous independent university researchers have all indicated that the root of radicalisations is disproportionately blown out of context."
Earlier this year Rod Thornton, an academic in the department of politics and international relations at Nottingham University, was suspended after publishing an article entitled Radicalisation at universities or radicalisations by universities?: How a student's use of a library book became 'a major Islamist plot'. The paper alleges serious misconduct on the part of university authorities in the run-up to the arrests of Sabir and Yezza, and in their treatment after their release.
Sabir endorses the article, calling it "a dossier that catalogues exactly what went on at the University of Nottingham.
"I'm not saying it's all fact and it's all truth and that it should all be taken as gospel," he says, "but I do think there's a lot of evidence in there which corroborates the claims that Dr Thornton has made, and that needs to be examined." Sabir further alleges that the university's actions were "discriminatory", and that the only way to properly hold universities to account is through an independent public enquiry. Over the last three years, he claims, the university has proven that it is not capable of looking at these claims impartially.
"The university have tried to throw a blanket over this entire fiasco, using a well-resourced public relations campaign and machine that they have, and they need to be held to account," he says.
The Thornton paper alleges that Sabir was monitored by senior management at the university, and that his mark for his master's degree was lowered to a 58 so that he could be refused entry onto the PhD programme. Internal documents obtained by Dr Thornton suggest systematic efforts to defame the characters of both Sabir and Yezza, and Sabir now claims that he has evidence suggesting that the university actively lied to the government about what happened.
As our conversation reaches its end, Sabir is defiant: "Until the university has been investigated and those people that stood with me — such as Dr Thornton — have been vindicated, we can't end this. It could take another ten years, fine — it will take ten years. Until it's done, I won't rest."