Damages for my unjust ‘terror’ arrest

A book available in the library called ‘Al-Qaeda Training Manual’ led to a student being arrested and incarcerated.

UK police
The policing of ‘terrorism’ in the UK has proved highly problematic for law enforcement bodies [GALLO/GETTY]

Over three years ago, when I was a Masters student at the University of Nottingham, I did not imagine I would be writing an article for Al Jazeera. Let alone one in which I would be explaining to its readers that I had been successful in holding the police to account, for falsely imprisoning me in solitary confinement for seven days as a suspected terrorist.

Only weeks before the trial was to begin, the police – desperate to prevent embarrassment and criticism – settled the case out of court. They paid me £20,000 ($31,000) in compensation, all of my legal expenses and removed all the incorrect (and unnecessary) information that they held on my intelligence file. Documentation that stated I was a “convicted” terrorist, that I wore a black hoody with the words “Free Palestine” written on it and had an “attitude” toward the police. The police also issued an apology for a stop and search that I was unlawfully subjected to under the Terrorism Act 2000 and accepted that I was not a terrorist.

If you’re not familiar with what happened on May 14, 2008, you can be forgiven for thinking that I must have done something very serious. Why else would I be arrested in a joint police operation on suspicion of being involved in the ‘commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism’, held in solitary confinement for seven days and subjected to daily interrogation and questioning? The truth, however, is quite the opposite.  

I was arrested (with a friend of mine, Hicham Yezza) for being in possession of a declassified, open-source document that I had  downloaded from the US Department of Justice website to assist my upcoming PhD research on Islamic terrorism. The document (given the title ‘Al-Qaeda Training Manual’ by the US government to convince a jury that the people arrested for the East Africa bombings were terrorists) is such a dangerous document that it can be loaned through the University of Nottingham’s own library system or purchased, even by children, in a glossy blue-cover from high-street bookshops such as Blackwells, Waterstones and WH Smiths (who have recently pulled it from their website).

The hysteria surrounding ‘campus radicalisation’ came to fruition when this library book and two related academic journal articles were discovered on my friends computer, who had kindly offered to help me with my research proposal. The ‘dangerous’ material was reported to the Registrar of the University of Nottingham, who, without any due-diligence or regard for university statutes and governmental guidance, instructed the Deputy Head of Security to call the anti-terror police. The police, not being able to take a chance where matters of library books were concerned stormed onto campus and arrested me and my friend as suspected ‘terrorists’.

Held for 7 days in solitary confinement, we (and our family and friends) had our lives turned upside down. On my release without charge, I immediately knew that the legal avenue was the only way that I could clear the label of “terrorist” that had been attached to my name.

I instructed lawyers to bring proceedings against the police for false imprisonment and racial discrimination, and 3 years later, I can say that the struggle against the police has ended with a victory that will show the world that holding the police to account can be achieved. It is hard work, exhausting and stressful, but nevertheless possible.

The police, as expected, have been spinning their loss to the press by claiming that they have not accepted liability for my wrongful arrest and false imprisonment. To me, and I’m sure to the public, it is abundantly clear that if the police were innocent, they would have gone to trial and fought their corner, not paid compensation and all of my legal fees. To me, and I’m sure others, this is a sign of guilt.

The story does not end here though. The University of Nottingham’s spin doctors have been busy claiming that my legal victory is a matter between me and the police, but, as they know, it has everything to do with them.

Dr Rod Thornton’s paper – “How a student’s use of a library book became a ‘Major Islamist Plot” – forensically documents how the university participated in a campaign of sabotage and discrimination not only against me (even though I had been released without charge and cleared) but against those who dared to stand with me. For example, I was recently told by a senior civil servant at the Department for Universities (DBIS) that the University’s Registrar attempted to – via a breifing – misinform the department regarding my arrest. Internal governmental documents that were used by Dr Thornton in his whistle-blowing paper corroborate such a claim. When Dr Thornton spoke up against what had happened and tried to hold the university to account, he was subjected to disciplinary procedures and eventually suspended by the Vice-Chancellor. He remains suspended at the time of writing. 

The allegations he makes are so serious, that only an independent, judge led public inquiry can bring closure to this sorry saga. The university, in its conduct over the last three years has shown that it is not capable of impartially bringing closure to the issues Dr Thornton raises, and because there is no public body in the whole of the United Kingdom that has the remit (or desire) to hold the University of Nottingham to account, only a judge led public inquiry can bring closure to this affair. Once a public inquiry has taken place, and Dr Thornton has been reinstated, will my name be fully vindicated.

Let my victory against the police be a clear message to the University of Nottingham that I am here to stay and will hold them to account for their actions.

Rizwaan Sabir is a PhD student at the University of Strathclyde where he is researching UK and Scottish counter-terrorism policy since 9/11.

You can follow him on twitter @RizwaanSabir

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.