Moazzam Begg reflects on being repeatedly stopped under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000
There are some laws one can never get used to no matter how ‘justified’ or ‘normal’ their proponents claim them to be. Being constantly stopped and interrogated by police at airports is one of them.
Last week, along with two of my colleagues from CagePrisoners, I was invited to a series of meetings in Qatar to discuss the plight of the remaining prisoners at Guantanamo and their representation in the Arabic-speaking world. I was looking forward to this trip as I would be meeting with former Guantanamo prisoners Jarallah al-Marri who toured the UK with me in 2009, along with a former US soldier who had once guarded us in Guantanamo, and Sami al-Hajj who is director of Al Jazeera’s public liberties and human rights department as well as one of our patrons.
One of my colleagues had travelled to Qatar separately. I was meant to travel to Qatar with another colleague but as I arrived at Heathrow Terminal 4 earlier than him, I decided to go through security and wait for him at the departure gate.
I have been detained under schedule 7 more times than I can remember. Although I’ve been held at Folkstone before crossing the Eurotunnel even on a visit to speak at the European Parliament alongside MEPs as well as being stopped for hours en route taking aid to Syria, most of the problems occur when I’m coming back to the UK.
I usually feel apprehensive when coming home – yes, after coming home from a long trip investigating torture and human rights violations carried out by despots I become the subject of authoritarian state practices myself. It is also quite unnerving to be interrogated when entering the one place you’re supposed to feel welcomed but be left alone when leaving (yes, I know they want ‘us’ all out). Anyway, at this point, I wasn’t expecting to be stopped and so my guard was down.
Having cleared security without a ‘beep’ I was about to head off to my departure gate when a female plain clothes officer approached me:
“Excuse me sir, may I ask where you’re travelling to today?” For a couple of seconds I thought this is just random, no need to worry. I told her I was going to Doha.
“And what is the purpose of your travel?” To lie or not to lie, that was the question. Had I said I was going to visit friends would the matter have ended there?
“I am attending meetings to discuss human rights issues related to torture and arbitrary detention.” I suppose there is always a price to pay for being truthful.
“That’s very interesting. Would you mind accompanying me so we can discuss this a little further? It shouldn’t take too long, sir.” She examined and took my passport and boarding card and asked me to follow her. My heart sank, not because I was worried about being interrogated – been there, done that – but because I thought I’d miss the flight.
We walked some way until we arrived at some secured rooms and she punched in some keys to enter. I took my seat at a table – both of which were bolted down. I can’t equate the situation to the often brutal interrogations I’d faced by US military intelligence, CIA and Mi5, but being locked in a room, searched and questioned against your will – without charge or legal representation – is precisely why Guantanamo is so wrong and illegal.
I was asked to empty my pockets and then I was searched by a male officer. Then, they went through my hand luggage and took away my phone and iPad.
I knew that my colleague must be on the plane by now and would’ve been very worried as we’d spoken on the phone just as I’d arrived at the airport. As the minutes ticked by to departure time my dismay and disappointment seared into anger.
She returned – without my electronic items– and began to fill out her forms.
“So this stop was completely random, it had nothing to do with my appearance or being a Muslim?”, I asked.
“Yes sir, that’s right,” she said, “I find the work you’re involved in interesting to my job and that’s all I’m doing here.”
“That’s what the Nazi concentration camp guards said at the Nuremburg trials, ‘we were just doing our job,’ I quickly retorted, “How could you have known what work I was involved in before you ‘randomly’ stopped me?”
There was no answer. Instead she asked me for my name, address, date of birth, occupation and purpose of travel. I refused to answer.
“You know we have the right to arrest and prosecute you if you refuse to answer,” she said almost sheepishly.
“I know – do your worst. Nothing you can say or do will frighten me, I’m sure you know that. I have accepted that I will not be making this trip. I won’t even confirm my name,” and I didn’t. For several minutes I refused to even look at her when she asked questions. I could tell she was flustered and wasn’t sure what to do. Then I spoke again.
“I was planning to have breakfast this morning but you’ve prevented me from that too. I need to eat something.”
“Please tell me what you want and I’ll get it for you.” Notwithstanding thoughts of full (halal) English breakfasts, “I’ll have a flapjack and an orange juice, thank you,” I answered. Off she went and returned a few minutes later with my request. But she wasn’t going to buy me with some light refreshments.
“Did you know that the British government has ordered an inquiry into the actions of British intelligence – with which you work very closely – surrounding its complicity in the torture of prisoners? Did you know that I have been interrogated by British agents – who are your close colleagues – while a gun’s been put to my hooded head while I was listening to the screams of people being beaten death in Bagram? Do you know that the Metropolitan police have been investigating MI5 about this in ‘Operation Hinton’?”
She picked up her pen again. “No sir, I’ve never heard of these things. Can you please say those names again?” Frustration just got another synonym: UK border police.
“Listen. I’m tired of this. There’s about 15 minutes left before boarding stops. If you can guarantee me that I’ll be on my flight I’ll answer the basic bio-data questions,” I said exasperated. She readily agreed and I answered what she must have known already.
“Do you have views on Syria?” she ventured.
“No. Is there anything else?”
“Can we talk about Guantanamo?”
“No. I wrote a book about that, I suggest you read it.”
“Who are you travelling with today?”
“I’m not telling you. Are we finished?”
It was over. She got back my belongings and I repacked my bag. To her credit she’d radioed ahead and asked the airline staff to wait as we raced back through security (without stopping) to the departure gate. She waved me goodbye as I walked through the boarding gate, the last man in.
My colleague was still arranging himself as I approached my seat beside him. I told him what had happened. He listened patiently and then told me he’d been ‘randomly’ picked out for questioning too but that he’d been a lot more amicable.
The wider Schedule 7 debate
There has been much discussion recently about the controversies surrounding last month’s detention of David Miranda under schedule 7. Miranda is the Brazilian partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald who published sensitive US government documents leaked by former CIA employee and US whistleblower Edward Snowden.
But the discussion, although fleeting in terms of media attention, has been raging for years within the Muslim community. For some of us it has become a regular occurrence, part of the travel package in fact. Statistics showthat BME and Asian communities, especially the Muslims from amongst them, are disproportionately targeted for schedule 7 stops.
Only a few of these cases get prominence. Just this week an anti-drone activist for the charity Reprieve who had come from Yemen was detained under schedule 7.
A few days ago I was visited by the family of Shaker Aamer, a British resident who has been held in Guantanamo for twelve years without charge. His four children who are all almost in their teens barely remember him. His youngest has never even seen his father.
A couple of years ago Shaker’s father-in-law Saeed Siddique who is in his 70s, and his wife returned to the UK to be met by border police. The two were separated and interrogated for three hours under schedule 7. Mrs. Siddique was in a wheelchair at the time. Both of them couldn’t understand the point of the stop and were extremely distressed. There are many people like them with silent voices. The memory still haunts them.
Put simply schedule 7 is an abuse of power that allows the state (police) to conduct itself in ways – at ports and airports – that are unlawful anywhere else. Its effects frighten, alienate and anger those subjected to it and if I didn’t know better I’d tell people to refuse to cooperate.
If you have been stopped under schedule 7 or want to know more about it, visit schedule7stories.com
CC image courtesy of Rosie Tulips on Flikr
(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.)