Halt anti-terror police activities in Dundee

Press Release from Scotland Against Criminalising Communities
Issued Tuesday 13 June

Campaigners are calling for an immediate halt to the activities of the controversial Special Branch Community Contact Unit operated by Tayside Police. The Unit targets "ethnic religious groups" in order to gather intelligence on activities that "could be considered extremist." The call follows revelations about the Unit's activities published in the Sunday Herald on 11th June.

The human rights group Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SACC) has written to John Vine, Chief Constable of Tayside Police to ask for the Unit's activities to be halted. SACC says that it will also be contacting police forces around Scotland to ask them to re-consider plans to set up similar units in their areas.

Detective Sergeant Mark Charnley, a frontline Tayside Special Branch officer, told the Sunday Herald that one possible sign of "extremism" in a school pupil would be "a kid who has gone back to their parents' country of origin [for example, Pakistan] and returned with anti-Western feeling or stronger religious faith than they had shown before". SACC say in their letter to John Vine that they are "frankly baffled to find an officer who says he wants to 'reassure the Muslim Community' displaying such blatant Islamophobia." They say that:

"Muslim parents, like parents with a commitment to any faith, are generally keen to strengthen the faith of their children. Many see this as one of the benefits of giving their child the opportunity to visit their country of origin. They would be appalled to discover that this could bring their child to the attention of Special Branch."

Detective Sergeant Mark Charnley also told the Sunday Herald that if a racist incident occurred, a Special Branch officer would go along to the victim and establish a relationship. SACC describes this policy as "offensively manipulative" and "likely to have a disastrous effect on people’s willingness to report race hate crimes." They say:

"A member of the public who reports a racist incident does so in the expectation that police will try to bring the perpetrators to justice. He or she does not expect to find Special Branch officers trying to establish a relationship with him or her. Tackling racist incidents is a job for ordinary police officers, not Special Branch. We expect officers attending such incidents to display a clear commitment to protecting the public from racism, and we expect them to take care not to confuse this with any other agenda."

Campaigners also say that they are extremely concerned "to find police officers pressing teachers to breach professional ethics." These concerns follow a statement to the Sunday Herald by Detective Chief Superintendent Colin McCashey of Tayside Police that teachers are being asked to help Special Branch officers "identify any activities that could be considered to be extremist" and to inform Special Branch officers "if they see any questionable behaviour."

The full text of the letter to John Vine follows:

Special Branch Community Contact Unit

Dear Mr Vine,

I am writing on behalf of the human rights group Scotland Against Criminalising Communities. We have already expressed serious concerns over the operation of the Special Branch Community Contact Unit (SBCCU) in Tayside. We understand that this unit is now to be made permanent following the publication by Tayside police of a favourable report into the trial phase of its operation.

The report does not appear to be available on the Tayside Police website and we have therefore submitted a request for it under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. It will not be possible for our campaign to give a full response to the decision to extend the operation of the unit until we have had an opportunity to study the report. However, we already have very grave concerns over statements made to the Sunday Herald (11 June 2006) by Detective Chief Superintendent Colin McCashey and Detective Sergeant Mark Charnley. In particular:

    • Colin McCashey says that the unit does not engage in "covert cloak and dagger activity or anything sophisticated like infiltration". We would not ourselves characterise any police operation as "cloak and dagger", but we note that Tayside police say that any information gathered is shared with the rest of Special Branch and can be read by officers across the UK. Since this must clearly include units that do engage in infiltration and surveillance, we do not understand the point of the distinction that Colin McCashey is trying to make.
    • We are extremely concerned over the statement that officers are asking teachers to help them "identify any activities that could be considered to be extremist" and to inform Special Branch officers "if they see any questionable behaviour."

      Teachers are normally expected to exercise great caution in releasing information about school students. We do not expect to find police officers pressing teachers to breach professional ethics in this way and we will be contacting the Educational Institute of Scotland with our concerns.

      It is particularly disturbing that this kind of disclosure is to be triggered by "activities that could be considered to be extremist" – a term not defined in law.

      The Sunday Herald was told that the SBCCU focuses only on "ethnic religious groupings." Policing that targets such groups in a way that imposes on them a serious breach of ordinary principles of confidentiality seems to us to be unacceptably discriminatory.

      The possibility that information obtained from teachers by the SBCCU could be shared with officers around the UK provides a further cause for serious concern.
    • Detective Sergeant Mark Charnley told the Sunday Herald that one possible sign of "extremism" in a school pupil would be "a kid who has gone back to their parents' country of origin [for example, Pakistan] and returned with anti-Western feeling or stronger religious faith than they had shown before".

      Muslim parents, like parents with a commitment to any faith, are generally keen to strengthen the faith of their children. Many see this as one of the benefits of giving their child the opportunity to visit their country of origin. They would be appalled to discover that this could bring their child to the attention of Special Branch.

      We are frankly baffled to find an officer who says he wants to "reassure the Muslim Community" displaying such blatant Islamophobia.
    • Detective Sergeant Mark Charnley told the Sunday Herald that if a racist incident occurred, a Special Branch officer would go along to the victim and establish a relationship. We find this incomprehensible. A member of the public who reports a racist incident does so in the expectation that police will try to bring the perpetrators to justice. He or she does not expect to find Special Branch officers trying to establish a relationship with him or her. Tackling racist incidents is a job for ordinary police officers, not Special Branch. We expect officers attending such incidents to display a clear commitment to protecting the public from racism, and we expect them to take care not to confuse this with any other agenda. The involvement of SBCCU officers in the way described to the Sunday Herald is offensively manipulative and is likely to have a disastrous effect on people’s willingness to report race hate crimes.
    • The Sunday Herald was told that the SBCCU is able to "note which foreign national students are arriving in Dundee." We are very concerned at the implication that these students might be targeted for particular attention by Special Branch officers. The Home Secretary has recently emphasised that British intelligence agencies cooperate closely with agencies overseas, particularly in the Middle East. This policy, coupled with the statement that Tayside SBCCU makes information available to officers throughout the UK, raises serious concerns that information on the political activities of overseas students could be passed on to regimes with a record of violating human rights.

Although we still lack a detailed picture of the way that the Tayside SBCCU has been operating, we feel that information already provided to the Sunday Herald raises such deep concerns that we are asking Tayside police to call an immediate halt to the Unit’s activities. We will also be calling on police forces around Scotland to reconsider any plans to initiate similar operations in their areas.

Detective Sergeant Mark Charnley has already told the Sunday Herald that criticism of the Unit is "ignorant." Our campaign has been working since 2003 to give support to individuals who have been targeted or affected by the UK’s anti-terrorism legislation. On the basis of this expert knowledge, we provided evidence that has been included in the report on "Counter-Terrorism Policy and Human Rights" published by Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights in February 2006 (HC915) and we have submitted evidence to Lord Carlile’s ongoing review of the statutory definition of terrorism. Officers of the SBCU, on the other hand, have paraded an alarming line-up of racist and Islamophobic attitudes before readers of the Sunday Herald. We think that Tayside Police need to listen to criticism a bit more carefully.

A copy of this letter will be made available to the press from 6pm on Tuesday 13 June.

Note

See "Anti-terror police target schools and youth groups" by Neil MacKay, Sunday Herald 11 June.