UK Activist Risks Prison Challenging ‘Digital Strip-Search’
CAGE International Director Muhammad Rabbani is about to stand trial for refusing to give UK police the password to his laptop, which contained information about torture survivors. He’s using his case to challenge Britain’s anti-terrorism legislation, Schedule 7
Aaron Maté: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Is refusing to share your password with authorities a jailable offense? That question hangs over a case about to go to trial in Britain. Muhammad Rabbani is the international director of the group CAGE, which helps people impacted by Britain’s anti-terrorism legislation. Last year, Rabbani flew into London after going on a trip overseas to investigate allegations of U.S. torture. He was arrested after refusing to hand over the password to his laptop. Rabbani has been charged under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act, which gives British law enforcement wide powers to search travelers at ports of entry. CAGE is known for challenging Britain’s anti-terror laws, and now Rabbani is about to do so as a defendant.
Muhammad Rabbani joins me now. He is international director of the group CAGE. Muhammad, welcome.
Muhammad Rabbani: Aaron, thanks for having me on.
Aaron Maté: Thanks for joining us. Let’s start off with your case about to go to trial later on this month.
Muhammad Rabbani: That’s right. In about a week’s time, on the 25th of September, I’m due to appear at the Magistrates’ Court, here in London in the UK, to deny the charges that have been made against me. Essentially, it revolves around a password. It all began in November last year when I was on my way back from a CAGE investigation mission to the Middle East. Upon landing at Heathrow Airport here in London, I was put through a process which comes under, broadly speaking, terrorism powers which are granted to border police, called Schedule 7.
In the course of basically four or five hours, I tried to reason with the police that I can’t give up my passwords to my phone and my laptop, which was what they were after. I said that if you give me an opportunity, all I need to do is secure the permission of in particular one individual whose case that we’re working on, who is a survivor of torture, 12 years of torture abuse, but also many other clients. I was trying to explain that if you give me permission to get their go-ahead and consent, then I can give you my passwords, but before then I need to protect that trust and confidentiality.
In the end, what happened is they arrested me. I was later charged, and now of course I’ll be on trial in a week’s time, trying to explain to the court how I’m not guilty of a crime and I’m doing what any other professional would’ve done in my place.
Aaron Maté: Did they give you any grounds at the time for why they wanted to look at your laptop? Under these laws, are they even required to?
Muhammad Rabbani: The answer is no, there’s no requirement. In fact, to stop a person under Schedule 7 powers, your listeners may be surprised to know that there’s even no suspicion required. The threshold is so, so low. In fact, there is no threshold. There’s no suspicion, so someone can just pick you out of the line, and they don’t have to provide a reason why they picked you out. That’s the main problem with this power, and it’s been operating in the UK for 17 years, and which makes it a power which is not consistent with what we in the UK call the rule of law or due process rights.
Secondly, everything that comes after that, there’s no reason required. My laptop, phone can be confiscated. You can be forced to give up your PIN codes and passwords. You don’t have the right to remain silent. Your fingerprints can be taken. Your DNA can be taken. You can be strip-searched. You can be held for six hours, treated like a criminal. All of that data can be put up, copied and uploaded to databases where probably there’s data of convicted criminals like murderers, rapists, pedophiles, even though you’ve not been actually accused of any crime or even suspected of one.
Aaron Maté: The obvious question here for me is, are these powers used across the board on every demographic, or are they specifically targeted at demographics like yours, people with Muslim or Arabic sounding names?
Muhammad Rabbani: Sure. That’s always the danger, isn’t it? What we’ve done at CAGE is we’ve been documenting and investigating not just Schedule 7 but actually the way that all anti-terror and national security policies have been operating and the way they’ve been impacting on the lives of ordinary people. What we’ve found is, firstly, the statistics connected to Schedule 7 were only disclosed from the year 2009 onwards. That means nine years’ worth of statistics we don’t even know. In that period, we had the Afghanistan war, we had the Iraq war, we had several political acts of terrorism, political violence, including the 7/7 bombings, the Madrid bombings, meaning that was a period when there was a lot of people that were being [inaudible 00:05:24], searched, detained.
Since 2009 anyway, the picture that we can see is, according to one study done by Cambridge University, they managed to track down people who’d been stopped under Schedule 7, and what they found is that 88% of people who were stopped under this power self-identified as Muslim. That’s a huge number, huge number. On average, each year we have 50,000 people that are being stopped, detained, searched, and what we call digital strip searches. That’s what they’re being subjected to. 50,000 people each year. If you add it up, that’s a huge number of British citizens who are just coming back from a holiday or business or wherever they’ve gone to, and they come back to be greeted like criminals.
Aaron Maté: You mentioned that this had been going on for 17 years to a lot of people. I believe since 2009 the number is over 400,000. Your case is bringing attention to this issue, but I’m wondering is, where was the attention before? Have civil rights advocates been challenging this in years prior?
Muhammad Rabbani: This is actually one of the disappointments. I’m speaking from the perspective of being someone who’s been involved in legal and civil liberties work for a number of years now. I’m also speaking as a member of the Muslim community here in the UK, and probably other minority and marginalized communities probably feel the same. 17 years is a long time.
I think upon reflection there’s only two things that I can really think of that has led to this law still being in place. One of them is to do with the public psyche that has been conditioned to almost switch off any rational thought when the word terrorism is involved. What the British public have been convinced of is that these powers are necessary to stop terrorists from coming into the UK and bombing us to pieces. Of course, the reality is only five people were arrested last year out of 18,000 stop-and-searches at the border. Clearly, all those 18,000 people were innocent and they were just people going about their business, and only five were thought to be involved in some sort of criminality. Of those five, by the way, one of them was me, and obviously I’m not involved in terrorism. I’ve not been accused of terrorism. I’ve been accused of not handing over my password. So you only have four people.
This is one of the problems why this has continued for 17 years, that there has not been a debate, there has not been a real effort to try and understand, yes, we need to protect national security, nobody’s going to argue against that, but let’s use an intelligent, measured, proportionate response, and let’s not have this sledgehammer approach of thousands and thousands of people being picked up and detained and searched.
The second problem we have is I think there’s been … What we were hoping and we expect is more from the human rights community. These are organizations and the figures who have a mandate to investigate and throw a light on some of these abuses, especially when it affects marginalized and minority communities who don’t have the same access and voice in society. Sadly, I think there’s a lot of work that could’ve been done, should be done, because it’s such a clear violation of due process, and it shouldn’t have been allowed to continue this long.
Aaron Maté: The dynamics you’re describing there in Britain have a lot of parallels to the climate here in the U.S. since 9/11 as well. On that front, let me ask you, just this week the ACLU filed a court challenge to similar searches, to similar warrantless searches of phones and laptops at the border here in the U.S. Your thoughts on that?
Muhammad Rabbani: We are very, very happy to see that. We welcome ACLU’s challenge. It’s a very strong challenge. That’s my first thought on it. Secondly is what it indicates is a growing trend, it seems, especially within Western nations, to develop more and more intrusive powers operating at borders. That’s a very worrying thing. Passwords and digital devices, in the modern times that we live in, they are almost like a key to the front door of your home and your office, because using that digital key you can gain access to pretty much everything about a person, both their personal and professional lives.
What the ACLU challenge does is try to question that there shouldn’t be a power that allows border officials to just gain access to people’s lives, personal and professional, without proper safeguards, where there needs to be some evidence brought against that person, a case made against that person, and then obviously they can make the case and try and access their devices.
Right now, as it stands, I think the issues are very, very similar. That which the ACLU case is highlighting and that which we here at CAGE are trying to also do is to just question that these powers need to actually be brought in line with modern technological advances, which actually means everybody’s life is online and you need to respect that privacy. It’s not that the more access you get to people’s data, the more you’re going to actually stop acts of political violence. There’s no correlation whatsoever.
In summary, I think it’s a very important development, and I think hopefully it will pave the way to a real sensible debate and some of these laws can be actually changed.
Aaron Maté: Finally, Muhammad, as we wrap, your trial is coming up later this month. Can you give us a little preview of what possible sentence you’re facing and the case you’re going to make both to the court and going forward to the public on this issue?
Muhammad Rabbani: Sure. The offense that I’ve allegedly committed carries a three months prison sentence. We’ll be arguing to the court that I didn’t commit the offense. I’m being accused of deliberately frustrating a search by a police, and all I’ll be saying is that it wasn’t a deliberate frustration, it was actually a dilemma which, if there was a very reasonable, sensible approach taken, it wouldn’t be construed as a criminal offense. That’s what we will be saying. We are quite confident that the law, the technical aspects of the law are on our side and the court will recognize that I’m actually innocent of any wrongdoing, and hopefully we’ll get an acquittal.
If we don’t get an acquittal and if I am found guilty, then we’ve thought about the consequences, and it would mean that potentially I’ll be in prison for three months. But I think it’s just such an important issue. It has so many implications for many, many members of society that it’s something we feel is worth taking the risk for. The implications will impact on journalists that are carrying material through borders, information about their sources. The implications will impact lawyers carrying evidence, legally privileged material. It will impact doctors, teachers, psychologists, anyone who has any contact with members of the public and carries confidential information about them. It will even impact on businessmen. You’ve got detail about your company, your partners, and so on. Bankers, they’ll have client information or customer details. All of this, really the police right now have the power to gain access to all of that information without giving you a reason. We’re trying to make those points publicly here, and to try and say that the ramifications of this case are actually quite far reaching.
Lastly, there’s a specific point for the Muslim community in the UK, and the West probably generally. The Muslim community are cast as a suspect community, sadly. That’s how the narratives around Islam and Muslims have been generated and sustained by authoritarian tendencies within Western nations. What we have identified is Schedule 7 as a power legalizes this suspicion against Muslims, so it disproportionally impacts, number one. Secondly, it gives a lawful way of casting all Muslims as suspects, because there’s no ground for reasonable suspicion, there’s no test for reasonable suspicion at the time when somebody’s detained. That’s why it’s especially important that we challenge this and even take that risk of landing in prison, to try and make a change.
Aaron Maté: Muhammad Rabbani, international director of the group CAGE, about to go to trial in Britain for refusing to hand over the password to his laptop. Muhammad, thanks so much.
Muhammad Rabbani: Thank you, Aaron. Thanks for having me.
Aaron Maté: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.
Muhammad Rabbani: Thank you.