We are all terrorists
Fahim Ahmed, a prominent campaigner for Palestinian rights and a member of the Stalinite wing of the Socialist Labour Party, was held under Blair's draconian anti-terrorist legislation. This is an edited account of his treatment at the hands of the state's forces
Since the introduction of the Terrorism Bill in parliament back in 1999, I have followed the debate surrounding the new legislation with avid interest. As a Marxist-Leninist I have a political interest in the clampdown on Irish freedom-fighters and domestic 'subversives', from liberal peace protestors to anti-fascist, anti-capitalist demonstrators, and as a budding criminal defence lawyer I have a professional interest in the practical application of the law. These two interests converged on December 19 2001, when I was 'detained' by Special Branch under the new legislation for the purpose of 'examination', arrested, held for 17 hours, interrogated and tortured through repeated forcible attempts at taking my fingerprints. The cuff-marks remain on my wrist and the psychological marks remain on my mind, as I write this report. I had been in Belgium, attending a massive trade union demonstration against the EU on December 13, and the latest big anti-capitalist demonstration on December 14 - both in Brussels. I returned on the Eurostar on December 19 and was checked by French customs on the train before it went into the tunnel. There were dark-suited British officers checking people on the train once it was officially in the UK, and I assumed that they were customs as well. An officer approached me, showed me a Metropolitan Police badge and asked to see my passport. I asked him what he was doing and he explained that he was a member of Special Branch and was doing routine anti-terrorism checks. I showed him my passport and he continued on his way. I thought nothing more of it, but when I got off the train at Waterloo at 4.30pm, the same officer was waiting for me before the arrivals area. He approached me and said: "Mr Ahmed, I'm detaining you under the Terrorism Act. Come with me." I could hardly believe it! I had thought about what a fuss I would make if I ever found myself in trouble with the police, but I never imagined I would be targeted as a 'terrorist'. I asked the officer his name and he told me: "DS Geoffrey Singleton." I wrote it down immediately and followed him into a room there in Waterloo station. He sat me down and immediately began asking me questions about who I was, where I had been, where I was going and what I was doing. I began answering his questions, thinking I was being interviewed under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (Pace), which guarantees criminal detainees rights to legal advice, silence and a standard of treatment specified in the codes of practice. Little did I know I was actually being 'examined' under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 (TA), which I later learnt is a piece of legislation that makes a mockery of the 'rule of law' and civil rights, which exist only in theory. After a few general questions he began asking me about my support for the intifada - he knew I was a supporter because I was wearing a badge which had a Palestinian flag for a background, and the words, "End the occupation, support the intifada", in the foreground. I explained that I had been active in the Oxford Palestine Solidarity Campaign, having meetings and handing out leaflets. Unsatisfied with my answer, he asked the question again, at which alarm bells started ringing. I am used to representing people in police stations and when an officer repeats a question which has been answered, it's usually my cue to say, "You've had an answer, officer. Please move on to the next question." But now, here I was, in the custody of Special Branch under the Terrorism Act, being questioned when I had already given an answer. I asked him to clarify what exactly he wanted to know and he repeated the question again, at which point I said: "I'm not answering any more questions - no comment." He asked me where I live and I repeated: "No comment." He then asked for my passport, which he had already seen on the train. I handed it over and told him that the address on the passport was my address, knowing that refusal to supply an address gives rise to a general power of arrest. I then asked if I had the right to legal advice; I was told that I had none. DS Singleton looked at me scornfully and left the room. I had been there no more than five minutes and things were already getting tense. Another officer came in and began searching my large rucksack. He also searched my jacket. He then asked me to stand up so that he could body-search me. I was alarmed and asked him why he wanted to do that. He told me not to worry and that he was only going to pad me down. It was my turn to repeat the question, so I again asked him why and what he was looking for. He looked confused, as though no one had ever objected to being frisked, and said that he had the power to search me and that I was just making things difficult. I explained to the man that I was not minded to being physically searched by police officers because I found it undignified and degrading, and that I would gladly turn out my pockets. He persisted, so I asked him to explain his reason for wanting to search me and he stated that I might have something on me that could be used to injure himself or another officer. I told the officer that I had got off the Eurostar expecting to go straight home, that I had no idea that I would be sitting in that room, and that I certainly had no intention to do him any harm. I stated further that I would be prepared to listen to any 'reasonable suspicion' he had formed as to whether I had anything dangerous on me, and that if it was genuine I would reconsider. Of course, he had no real reason to search me, and so he became frustrated. He told me that I would be searched whether I liked it or not, and left the room. Having been there for an hour, I was handed a 'notice of detention', which outlined the particular legislation under which I was being held. It stated that I had the right to have someone informed of my detention and to consult a solicitor! I studied the notice and added it to the papers I had compiled detailing the events so far, the names of officers who had given them and the warrant numbers of those that refused to tell me their names. Next I asked to use the toilet, but was refused on the grounds that I might dispose of something or produce a weapon. Twenty-five minutes later I was allowed to use the loo with supervision, after which I requested my rights. After I made my first phone call I was told that I was being arrested for failing to provide address details. I immediately pointed out that the officers had my passport, which had my address on it, and that I had told them so when I handed it over. Two minutes later I was told that I was to be arrested for refusing to submit to a body search! It was obvious that they were looking for an excuse to arrest me, although I was glad that I'd be taken to proper police station, where I would have certain rights in custody that I was familiar with. So I waited another 45 minutes for uniformed officers to turn up, handcuff me, walk me through Waterloo station like a criminal, and take me in a squad car no more than 200 metres down the road to Kennington Road cop shop. I was booked into custody, and whilst I was waiting I gave informal legal advice to two detainees who were being pursued for drugs and dishonesty offences. Eventually I was spoken to by the custody sergeant, to whom I explained the false pretences on which I had been arrested, but he had already authorised my detention and was not amenable to my objections. I requested my custody record so that I may note my objections on it. He refused, saying that the record was for him, not me, at which I asked for the writing materials to which I was entitled. He then had me searched, which I allowed, knowing that he had a 'legitimate' reason (my safety), as distinct from the original search situation where there was none. I was allowed to speak to a solicitor who said he'd be out soon, and then I was put into a cell to wait for my legal advice. Two hours went by and eventually I was let out of the cell to speak to my brief, who turned out to be an Irishman named Adams! He was not the guy I had spoken to on the phone and admitted to knowing nothing about the terrorism legislation under which I was being held. I sympathised with him, since I knew nothing about it either, but the right to legal advice is useless if the system cannot provide you access to someone who knows the law in that area. We were told that I would not be 'interviewed' under Pace in relation to the offence for which I had been arrested; rather I would be 'examined' under schedule 7 of the TA. I had no right to silence, and in fact I was under a duty to provide the examining officer any information he requested! Further, if I failed to comply with this duty, I would be committing an offence for which I could be imprisoned for up to three months, and/or receive a fine of up to £2,500. Following legal advice, I decided that I would have to answer questions to avoid the possibility of an unnecessary conviction for a terrorist offence, which wouldn't look very good on future job applications and may stop me from qualifying as a solicitor in future. I was worried about the prospect of a police interview without the right to silence, since I knew that the only way for the police to get evidence where there is none is through the mouth of the 'suspect'. I did not know what they wanted to ask me about, my solicitor got minimal disclosure and I was worried about questions being sprung on me without my knowing what sort of allegations I was actually facing. Anyway, we went into an interview room, where tapes were put in the machine and the examination was begun. I was asked very vague, open questions, mainly in relation to visits to Libya and Algeria. I explained to the officers that I had been attending youth conferences and festivals officially organised by the governments of those countries, in an attempt to foster positive relations between our respective countries. Then they asked me why I had been to Pakistan, and I told them that I, like many other second-generation immigrants in the UK, had family in Pakistan, and that I had been visiting Pakistan since childhood for this purpose. I had to work hard to get the examining officer to narrow down his questions, because I was used to police officers asking detainees about their involvement in specific offences, whereas this 'examination' seemed to be an intelligence-gathering exercise at my expense. Eventually the questions were exhausted and the tape buzzer sounded before I had a chance to add my own comments to the tape. The officers refused to put another tape in, and that was the end of that. It was now 1am. I was fatigued from travelling and being locked up, and I expected that a decision would be made and I would be released. I had no idea how I would get back to west London from Waterloo, as I was now in serious danger of missing the last tube. However, this was not a consideration for the police. What Special Branch were concerned with was fingerprints. I was told that I would be fingerprinted, and my solicitor discovered that they wanted three sets of extremely detailed fingerprints. I noticed that a female in casual clothes who had been hanging about Kennington custody was actually a fingerprint specialist present simply to ensure the extraction of quality prints from me. I knew that the procedure required my written consent, and I also knew that consent could not be withdrawn once it had been given. More importantly though, they wanted my fingerprints before even charging me with an offence. I hadn't done anything wrong; they were not even alleging that I had done anything wrong, yet they wanted my prints for no apparent reason. The last nail in the coffin was the fact that they wanted to then keep those prints forever. I refused to consent to giving my fingerprints, and the police used all sorts of tactics over the course of the next four hours to get me to change my mind and submit to their will. Initially I was told that a superintendent would come in the morning to authorise the use of force. I argued that I was only allowed to be held "as long as is necessary", and that the fact that I was still there was unnecessary, but being kept in a cell until the morning was completely out of order. I told them to bring the superintendent immediately. The custody sergeant refused, saying that the super was unavailable until morning. So I told him to get on the phone, but the objection came back that the authorisation had to be marked on the custody record and that the super therefore had to be there in person. I had to quote the law at this custody sergeant, and told him that verbal authorisation was permitted as long as it was written down as soon as practicable afterwards. There was a moment of silence in Kennington custody and then the sergeant got on the phone. Whilst this was a victory for me in terms of speeding up the process, I had only succeeded in getting the police to obtain authority to use force against me. The phone call lasted no more than 90 seconds and the police had their 'authority'. I was then taken by the large middle-aged jailer to the fingerprint area. I allowed him to wash, dry and ink my hands, and as he moved my right index finger onto the print form I deliberately smudged the print. He looked at me disdainfully and the process was repeated. I politely explained that he was assaulting me, and that it would be impossible for him to take fingerprints from me whilst I was unwilling. He said something along the lines of 'We'll see about that', and then put handcuffs on my wrist, using them as a clamp. The hard metal cut into my skin, causing pain. He grabbed the middle part of the cuff and tried again to take my print. I held my ground and he failed. He then went off in a huff and came back with another officer. The two of them held me, jostled me and manhandled me into position, and attempted to take my prints by force for another 40 minutes. After they had spoiled a dozen print forms they decided to put me in a cell for while, presumably so that they could scratch their heads about what to do next. The next hour and a half in that cell was an extremely testing time for me. Whilst initially I thought the situation would be interesting - an intellectual exercise in the rights of citizens against the power of the state authorities - I realised that the situation I was in was dangerous and oppressive. The police really had authority to use force on me. My wrist and arm was swollen and bruised from their aggressive actions. I had no idea how long I would be in this cell, or what they had in store for me next. The police attitude so far had been, 'You will be here for as long as it takes.' This was no joke. At 3.30am there was a knock on the cell door and I was pleased to see an inspector. I thought she would be releasing me, but she took me back to the fingerprint area, where eight large male officers were standing waiting for me. This time they really put the pressure on and soon I was shouting and screaming in pain. At one point I allowed myself to lean completely on an officer, as I expected my knees to give way. They applied so much pressure on my fingers and arm that the pain, coupled with that of the cuffs on my wrist, meant I could hardly stand. I'm not sure exactly how long that went on, but the jailer stopped the proceedings partly out of frustration and partly because the cuts on my wrist were becoming too obvious. At that point I gave those officers a speech on human and civil rights, and told them that I would be mad to hand over three sets of prints to Special Branch, for them to keep forever, for no apparent reason. I told them people like the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four had spent decades in jail because Special Branch had deliberately stitched them up for terrorist offences they did not commit. I refused to give my fingerprints on principled grounds, and I did not submit to their will. At 5am I was taken to the medical room to see the police doctor, who sympathetically listened to my story, but was unable to do anything other than make a thorough note of my injuries. After that I was told by the inspector that in the morning the Territorial Support Group (TSG) would arrive, that they were a special anti-terrorist force, and that they had methods of forcing prints from non-compliant prisoners, and that if my fingers or wrist were broken it would be my own fault. I could hardly believe that an inspector was threatening me with broken bones. I retorted that broken bones would constitute unreasonable force and that I would sue her personally as well as the Met in general. In any case, I was put back in a cell and slept from 5.30-8.30am, when I was woken by the civilian jailer with breakfast. It wasn't too bad, but I had little appetite. Having been in plenty of police stations, this was the first time I had woken up in one. I had had little sleep and was not relishing the prospect of being tortured by the TSG. Just before 9am I requested the jailer to let me speak with a superintendent, an inspector, a solicitor from Birnbergs, a solicitor from Bindmans, and my old boss at Darbys in Oxford. Shortly afterwards a new inspector came knocking and told me that he was not satisfied that I was being held 'necessarily', that he would check what Special Branch were up to and get back to me shortly. At 9.40am I was let out of my cell to speak to my old boss, and whilst on the phone I was told that I was to be bailed to return at a later date. Shortly after 10am I was out of the station and walking along the bank of the river Thames on a cold Thursday morning in December, a week before Christmas. The whole episode affirmed my worst fears about the police, Special Branch (the British Gestapo) and the criminal justice system. The rights that we assume are upheld in our 'civilised' country are actually not recognised in practice. The police detained me under schedule 7 of the TA, which gives the power to officers to 'detain' anyone for up to nine hours to determine whether they 'appear' to be a terrorist, and the officer does not even need to have reasonable suspicion. That is called arbitrary arrest. They then wanted to 'examine' me, during which I had a 'duty' to provide any information they required. I had no right to silence. Further, I would be committing an offence if I failed in that duty. This means that simply refusing to answer questions has been criminalised, and carries a prison sentence of up to three months. This is called being guilty until proven innocent, and is a subversion of the right to a fair trial. The terrorism legislation enacted recently provides the power to detain foreigners without charge. This policy (and most others in the TA) is well known to the Irish as internment, or imprisonment without trial. Section 41 of the TA gives the power to arrest without warrant anyone suspected of committing a specific offence or anyone suspected of being "concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation" of terrorism. This means that the police have the power to arrest someone who has not committed any offence or broken any law, which is a clear violation of the basic right to freedom. Article 5(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights provides that: "Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be deprived of his liberty ... [unless under] lawful arrest or detention ... effected for the purpose of bringing him before the competent legal authority on reasonable suspicion of having committed an offence." In plain English this means that no one should be arrested (and therefore deprived of their liberty) unless someone thinks they've done something wrong. Compare that with my story. The most worrying aspect of the law is the removal of the rights to freedom of speech, association, and thought. The 'proscribed list' of terrorist organisations tells you who you can and cannot support, which organisations you can and cannot join, and even which organisations you can and cannot advertise with badges. The government has banned DHKC, the Peoples' Revolutionary Liberation Front of Turkey, the leading light in the struggle against the brutal, fascistic government of Turkey. Also banned is PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party - again in the forefront of the struggle against Turkish fascism, but also struggling to win nationhood for the beleaguered Kurds. Another banned group is the PFLP, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, one of the leading components of the PLO and the strongest revolutionary element in the Palestinian struggle against illegitimate Israeli occupation. What does all this mean? It means that slowly but surely the government is telling you that if you support national liberation and revolutionary movements abroad, you will be treated like a criminal, but you will not even get the same rights a criminal suspect has. The situation as it stands is clearly the beginning of a legislative move towards extreme reaction, being carried out by a Labour government, which has moved everything else towards reaction and is now changing the laws in order to clamp down on 'subversion' at home. The TA, in effect since February 19 2001, defines terrorism as action or threat of action (so you don't even have to do anything - just threaten it) which involves serious violence against a person, serious damage to property, endangers a person's life, creates serious risk to public health or safety, or seriously interferes with an electronic system; and the use or threat is designed to influence the government or intimidate the public; and the use or threat is made with the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause. Hmm, sounds like imperialist bombing of Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Sudan and Iraq, and the sanctions against Iraq, Libya, Cuba, North Korea and other states. The definition is so broad that it could be used to target workers on strike (which is bound to become a thing of the future, what with the chaos in transport, the cutting of 30,000 jobs at Consignia, and the continuing crisis in capitalist economics), anti-war protestors, anti-capitalist protestors - indeed anyone who even tries to 'influence' the government. We in the SLP will leave all the 'influencing' to the social-democratic sell-outs, the reformist revisionists and the Trotskyite factions of the Socialist Alliance. We do not aim to influence: rather we aim to abolish this system and replace it with socialism, and if that means defying unjust laws, so be it.