Since the start of the War on Terror, there has been consistent harassment of the Muslim community – and several non-Muslims too – by security agencies in the UK and abroad. There are many who will tell stories of how they were questioned by MI5, MI6, Special Branch and even the SAS while they were being tortured and mistreated by various security agencies abroad. Unfortunately in those circumstances, those people had absolutely no ability to exercise their rights in any way – for those who were complicit in their abuse, should have been the ones to protect them.
For those who were detained abroad, the fear of their situation was used by the security agencies in order to attempt to coerce them into working for the authorities. Those British citizens and residents who eventually ended up in Guantanamo Bay, at some point were offered work opportunities with the UK security agencies in order to save them from their situation – however they all chose to maintain their dignity by not allowing themselves to be subjected to such bribes.
In the UK, there are various forms of police and security harassment taking place against the Muslim community. Poor intelligence gathering and a system of profiling (which is actually stereotyping – treating all Muslims as if they are terrorist suspects) has resulted in the most serious breaches of human rights. We should never forget that when the police murdered Jean Charles de Menezes, they assumed they were killing a Muslim.
At Cageprisoners we receive a number of calls each week complaining about the treatment that Muslims are receiving by various agencies. It is time to redress the balance by informing the public of their rights. There is no reason why anyone should feel intimidated into cooperating with the security agencies beyond what the law requires, particularly when they attempt to use powers beyond what is acceptable.
Below are various circumstances under which you could be stopped, detained or harassed by various agencies. We will try and provide the appropriate response to each circumstance. What follows only applies in England and Wales; in Scotland and Northern Ireland the law may be slightly different.
Stop and search
According to the Met Police website:
“A police officer, or a community support officer must have a good reason for stopping or searching you and they are required to tell you what that reason is.
There are, however, occasions when the police can search anyone in a certain area, for example when there is evidence that serious violence has taken place or may take place, (Powers under S60 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994). The officer should explain this to you and must be searching for items to be used in connection with violence
You should not be stopped just because of your age, race, ethnic background, nationality, faith, the language you speak or because you have committed a crime in the past.
The police can stop or stop and search you:
· If they think you’re carrying a weapon, drugs or stolen property
· If there has been serious violence or disorder in the vicinity
· If they are looking for a suspect who fits your description
· As part of anti-terrorism efforts.
The police who stop and search you must provide you with certain information including:
· Their name and the station where they work (unless the search is in relation to suspected terrorist activity or giving his or her name may place the officer in danger. They must then give a warrant card or identification number)
· The law under which you have been stopped
· Your rights
· Why you have been stopped and searched
· Why they chose you
· What they are looking for
The police officer will ask for your name and address and date of birth. You do not have to give this information if you don’t want to, unless the police officer says they are reporting you for an offence.
Everyone who is stopped or stopped and searched will be asked to define his or her ethnic background. You can choose from a list of national census categories that the officer will show you.
You do not have to say what it is if you don’t want to, but the officer is required to record this on the form. The ethnicity question help community representatives make sure the police are using their powers fairly and properly.”
Police search powers only extend as far as checking the bag (or item(s)) you are carrying and checking your pockets. They can also ask you to remove your coat, hat and gloves, but nothing else. They are not permitted to ask you questions about where you are coming from or going to.
Always be polite yourself, and do not be confrontational, however annoyed you feel. If you can, report what has happened to you to a national or local monitoring group, or even to your local Citizens Advice Bureau, and ask them to keep a record. Also, make a record yourself.
You are not obliged to answer any of the questions the police put to you. If you are not arrested, you have no obligation whatsoever to answer any questions by the police. If they try and push you, you can politely tell them that you would be happy to speak with them, but only in the presence of your solicitor.
If you are arrested, you have the right to ask for a lawyer. It is better to know the best criminal lawyers in advance; however, a duty solicitor will usually be adequate to deal with any initial questioning you may be facing. However, you should ensure that, if you are charged, afterwards you should give instructions to a lawyer with experience in the field of terrorism, rather than a duty solicitor, who may not know how to adequately deal with your case.
Even if you are arrested, you are not obliged to answer questions. You have the right to remain silent, but if you do so and are later charged with an offence, your refusal to answer questions may be taken into account. Therefore, a lawyer’s advice is essential. Be careful not to enter into idle conversation with the police – they do not have the right to ask you anything not connected to an alleged offence, so do not give them any details about your family or personal circumstances, or those of anyone else. If you are arrested, your best defence is not to answer any questions and just ask for a lawyer.
You will rarely find a circumstance where MI5 will simply knock on your door politely and ask to speak to you in order for help. You may be stopped on the street for a casual chat, they might use a police officer to pretend to be postmen, they might turn up at your house early in the morning, your place of work, at the airport as you’re leaving or entering the country, call you on the phone and ask to meet you at a Novotel hotel or they will use some other unsuspicious means to approach you.
The goal of MI5 is to gather intelligence and they will try their hardest to extract as much as they can from you with each meeting. Anything they may offer, in terms of monetary incentives/jobs, is solely for their own benefit and not yours – and it is worth remembering that. Again, never think that any question they ask is innocent. Don’t give away any personal details about yourself or anyone else, however harmless they might seem.
You are under no obligation to speak with MI5 if they approach you. They cannot arrest you for not cooperating with them and so if they do come to speak with you, then you can politely tell them that you prefer not to speak to them and that if they persist in trying to speak to you, you will call your solicitor (who will advise you to say nothing).
Much of the system MI5 has been operating in the Muslim community has been on the basis of fear and intimidation, however, once you know your rights, there really is nothing to be afraid of.
Questioning when entering or exiting ports
Under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, the police have been given a wide range of powers that can be particularly intrusive. When entering or existing a port, the police can detain you up to 9 hours in order to question you without giving you access to a solicitor. By law you are obliged to answer their questions, otherwise they can arrest you and take you to a police station in order to question you further – however at that point you can have access to a solicitor.
The general advice that has been given by solicitors at this time, is that it is prudent to answer the questions that are being asked at the port itself, rather than being arrested and taken to the police station. You do not have to give detailed answers beyond what is asked of you and it is better to remain accurate and succinct in any responses.
If MI5 try and approach you at the port, you are not obliged to answer their questions. It is important that you always try and clarify who you are speaking to, as often the authorities will send immigration officers, the police and MI5 without you necessarily knowing who is who. It is worthwhile keeping a small notepad and a pen with you so that you can take down any relevant badge numbers and questions that they may ask – this helps in order to ascertain the methods with which the laws are being used in order to profile Muslims. Always ask to whom you are speaking, and try to get a name, or, if they will not give you a name, ask which agency they are from – police, immigration or MI5. Note the time and the date. Ask them under what legal powers they are questioning you. Always be polite and non-confrontational, but treat the person questioning you as an equal. Have in the back of your mind that they are a public servant, doing their job, but paid for out of taxpayers’ money, and therefore accountable for their actions.
Is it not better to have a casual chat and have it done with?
In many circumstances, I have often come across people who assumed it would be better that they just spoke at that time despite having no obligation to do so and without the presence of the solicitor. The assumption was always that the authorities would go away due to the cooperation. This is nearly never the case. Once you open the door to cooperating outside of your legal rights, our evidence shows that they are prone to increase the questioning, infringe upon your rights and will pressurise you to effectively spy on your own community.
The intelligence community is trained to extract evidence, and so you do not know how things you may say may affect you or someone else, unbeknownst to you the entire time. By keeping your answers very short and, if necessary, having a layer of protection through lawyers, who can always ensure that any questions relate strictly to you, you can make sure that your position is not abused.
At a press conference that Cageprisoners put together last year on the state of profiling and MI5 harassment in the Muslim community, when one of our panellists was asked why it was wrong to speak with MI5, he said it was not wrong, but just that it did not make sense for them to pretend to be postmen to speak with him or get him to work for them. It just was not the right way of doing things.
Fear and intimidation should not become a daily part of our lives in the UK, and the only way we can stop that from setting in, is by knowing our rights and always living under the assumption that we deserve to be treated with full due regard and respect.
Dr Asim Qureshi is a Human Rights Lawyer and is Co-DIrector of CAGE UK (previously known as Cageprisoners) where he works as the senior researcher. Asim has led investigations into Pakistan, Bosnia, Kenya, Sudan, Sweden, USA and around the UK. With his team of researchers, he has written and published many reports exposing the use of unlawful detention, rendition, and torture in the ‘war on terror’.
He is also the author of the book, “Rules of the Game: Detention, Deportation, Disappearance”. The work analyses the global detention policies in the ‘War on Terror’ post 11th September 2001 and the impact on those most affected.