Fahad Ansari looks at the significance of CAGE international director Muhammed Rabbani’s principled stance on risking prison to object to the Schedule 7 law as a turning point for civil rights in Britain.

Within every civil rights movement there comes a watershed moment which marks the beginning of real social change, a critical turning point from which there is no going back. They are usually marked with individual acts of courage and personal sacrifice that not only raise public awareness of an unjust law or policy but act as the catalyst to the abolishment of the same.  Vilified by the power structures of their time, future generations have celebrated them as heroes with their persecutors confined to the dustbin of history.

When Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat in December 1955 to a white passenger on the bus on the way from work, she was fully conscious that she was breaking the law in Alabama which required black people to relinquish seats to white people when the bus was full. Her arrest and imprisonment sparked a 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system. It also led to a 1956 Supreme Court decision banning segregation on public transportation.

Parks, who is now known as the ‘Mother of the Civil Rights Movement’, later said: “I had not planned to get arrested. I had plenty to do without having to end up in jail. But when I had to face that decision, I didn’t hesitate to do so because I felt that we had endured that too long. The more we gave in, the more we complied with that kind of treatment, the more oppressive it became.”

At the height of his celebrated boxing career, world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali refused to serve in the US army during the Vietnam War. He was not only stripped of his license and title but he was also sentenced to five years in prison. Ali was willing to defy the law based on his principles.

As he famously said: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”

Four years later, the Supreme Court overturned his conviction by a unanimous 8-0 decision. Ali’s stance in sacrificing the prime years of his boxing career, his wealth, his reputation and his liberty for his principles, energised the civil rights movement and made him a global icon.

In his famous letter from prison in 1963, Martin Luther King differentiated between just laws and unjust laws and argued that “an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”

There are many other examples from around the world including Nelson Mandela’s incarceration for organising a worker’s strike against apartheid in South Africa and Gandhi’s regular imprisonment by the British colonial forces in India for his acts of non-violent civil disobedience.

Today, international director of CAGE, Muhammad Rabbani will report to a police station in east London where he expects to be charged with a terrorism offence. His crime: refusing to provide the police with the passwords for his devices after being detained at the airport on his return from abroad.

Whilst some may pontificate about the wisdom and sensibility of Rabbani’s actions, they need to be viewed within the context of the legislation under which he is being prosecuted. Rabbani was detained under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2001.

This law permits the authorities to detain and question any individual at any port of entry or exit to the UK for up to six hours. Under the legislation, you do not enjoy a right to silence and must answer questions. You must provide your DNA sample and allow yourself to be strip-searched if requested. You must surrender your passwords to your devices when asked.

Critically, the authorities do not need to have even the remotest level of suspicion to enable them to carry out any of these powers. Paradoxically, if the police were to arrest someone on suspicion of being involved in a criminal offence, that person would have more rights than if detained at the airport without suspicion.

Every year, over half a million people have been detained under Schedule 7 since the power was introduced with approximately 50,000 people being held every year.

The fact that only 0.2% of those detained have been arrested with an even a smaller number charged underlines the disproportionate nature of the power. This means that tens of thousands of innocent people are harassed under anti-terrorism laws every year in what is essentially a large-scale fishing expedition. The vast majority of those affected comply in the hope that they can get on with their journey and out of fear of imprisonment for not doing so.

Rabbani himself has been detained under Schedule 7 over 20 times in the past decade. He has never previously provided his password when requested to do so.  However this was the first time he was arrested for not complying. He believes it is because the material on his laptop included documentation relating to a legal case being built around alleged torture involving US intelligence agencies.

Rabbani pleaded that he could not disclose that material without the express consent of the alleged victim of torture. Like those before him, Rabbani is willing to go to prison for his principles.

If Rabbani is charged today and jailed, we should not only support him but celebrate his arrest as it may prove to be a watershed moment for civil rights in Britain.


CC image courtesy of Mayu on Flickr

(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)