Controversial anti-terrorism powers which are being widely used to harass and gather intelligence on members of the Muslim and South Asian communities travelling to and from the UK are being challenged by several human rights organisations in a case to be heard by the Supreme Court on Wednesday and Thursday.
Schedule 7, which forms part of the Terrorism Act 2000, allows police to hold someone at a UK port for questioning, and to detain them for up to nine hours to determine whether they have been involved with acts of terrorism. Anyone questioned must “give the examining officer any information in his possession which the officer requests” or face arrest. Police need to have no reasonable suspicion to stop, interrogate or detain anybody.
Schedule 7 was thrust into the spotlight last August when it was used to detain David Miranda, the Brazilian partner of a Guardian journalist reporting on the Snowden disclosures, as he transited London’s Heathrow Airport on his way home to Rio de Janeiro. Mr Miranda was interrogated by six officers and his laptop, mobile phone, and memory cards confiscated.
The Supreme Court hearing relates to the case of Sylvie Beghal, a French national of Algerian descent, who was stopped under the powers after arriving with her children at East Midlands Airport on a flight from Paris. The mother of three refused to answer the questions put to her – which included requests for information about her family – without the presence of a lawyer. She was subsequently convicted for wilfully failing to comply with her duty under Schedule 7 to answer questions.
Mrs Beghal unsuccessfully brought a challenge against her conviction before the High Court last year. She had claimed that the detention had violated her rights under the European Convention on Human Rights – namely the right to liberty (Article 5), right to a fair trial (Article 6) and the right to protection for her private and family life (Article 8). She also argued that the prosecution was an unjustifiable interference with her “right to free movement” between EU countries as an EU national.
Judges rejected her appeal and Ms Beghal is now appealing to the Supreme Court. Her case is being supported by several organisations including the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) and CAGE, who, with the support and representation of the law firm Leigh Day, will all present evidence of the discriminatory and disproportionate impact of Schedule 7 on Muslims and minority ethnic communities.
Since Schedule 7 came into force, its powers have been systematically misused to implement ethnic and religious profiling. Government statistics show that proportionately many more people from ethnic minorities are stopped than persons identified as “white”. For the year ending on 31 March 2014 ethnic minorities accounted for 76% of all those who were stopped for more than 1 hour. An EHRC report found that people who identified as Pakistani were 154 times more likely to be detained than those identifying as white.
All three organisations have received scores of complaints of the powers being abused including security officials asking Muslims they have stopped if they pray (something seen to be an attempt to connect religiosity to propensity to terrorism) or if they would be willing to spy on their communities or even which party they voted for.
Asif Bhayat of CAGE said, “Recent statistics show a 100% rise in Islamophobia related incidents in the UK, Muslims are feeling targeted by state institutions in the same way. We really hope that Schedule 7 is treated similarly to the old section 44 terror law which presented the same sorts of risk of abuse before it was scrapped. It’s about time the Muslim community stopped being scared of being branded ‘extremist’ for challenging the status quo.”
IHRC chair Massoud Shadjareh, who was a member of the now disbanded National Accountability Board set up by the government to oversee Schedule 7, said: “The overwhelming extent of the Schedule 7 power has resulted in highly discriminatory racial and religious profiling. It has been systematically misused and the current checks and balances in place are ineffective in holding the authorities to account. Muslims have been disproportionately targeted by officers exercising this power, and have been left feeling like second class citizens. The dismantling of the Schedule 7 National Accountability Board and the undermining of the IPCC’s investigative powers has left little option but for individuals to resort to legal remedies. This case will no doubt demonstrate the shortcomings of the legislation and the abuse in its implementation, and the need therefore for immediate reform.
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