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Terrorism - Laws and Rights

Press Release from Scotland Against Criminalising Communities
14 August 2006

SACC welcomes yesterday's statement by Scotland's universities that there was no evidence of "extremist" groups operating among their students. The statement follows an article in the Sunday Telegraph by Roya Nikkhah and Andrew Alderson claiming that the paper had found "extremist literature" in rooms used by London Metropolitan University Islamic Society. But we also caution against the use of the term "extremist", which has no legal or generally-agreed definition and is apt to promote misunderstandings.

The Sunday Telegraph says it also found copies of a "Know Your Rights Pamphlet." Mention of the leaflet in this context seems calculated to imply that there is something suspicious about informing people of their legal rights. This is an irresponsible and Orwellian suggestion and it should be rejected out of hand by any democratic society.

The leaflet referred to by the Sunday Telegraph appears to be one produced by the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) and Arani & Co Solicitors. Our campaign distributes this leaflet in Scotland and we commend it to everyone, and especially to members of the Muslim community. The key advice contained in the leaflet is that people should contact a lawyer before responding to requests for information from MI5 or Special Branch. It offers specific and practical guidance to help people resist pressure to answer questions before obtaining legal advice. We would be most surprised to hear of any criminal defence lawyer who disagreed seriously with these recommendations. A link to the leaflet is prominently displayed on the home page of our website.

Oddly, the Sunday Telegraph describes the leaflet as a "six-page leaflet." It is in fact a succinct double-sided A4 leaflet, usually folded into three for distribution. SACC is currently working on an expanded and updated "Know Your Rights" booklet that incorporates the advice given in the IHRC leaflet.

The rights referred to in the leaflet are rights granted by Parliament to protect vulnerable individuals from exploitation and to protect society from the corrosive effects of misscarriages of justice and abuses of power. These rights are worthless unless people know about them. We are confident that Scottish police forces will acknowledge and defend people's right to be properly informed. Our campaign will respond very vigorously to any attempt by the media or anyone else to scare people away from accessing this kind of vital information.

We are particularly keen that students coming to Scottish universities in the coming academic year should be properly informed of their rights and we do not wish to see our efforts sabotaged by irresponsible journalism.

Tayside Police last year set up a Special Branch Community Contact Unit that has been involved - amongst other things - in open surveillance of Muslim students at Dundee's universities. Tayside Police claimed last May that the Unit had been a success and that similar units would be rolled out across Scotland. But the the Tayside Unit has attracted serious criticism and its officers have been accused by SACC of displaying Islamophobic attitudes. A recent letter about this matter to SACC from Paddy Tomkins, Chief Constable of Lothian and Borders Police, made no mention of any rollout of a similar unit in his area and said "you may be assured that I will continue to pursue policies that underpin our operational basis of consent and active cooperation."

A briefing from Scotland Against Criminalising Communities

SACC offers the following provisional briefing on legal issues facing people who might be approached by police or the intelligence services in connection with terrorism investigations. Anyone, however respectable, may find themselves approached for information in this way, or even arrested. We hope that our briefing will help people to make informed choices in these situations. Our guidance reflects the position as currently understood by lay members of SACC and should not be relied upon for legal purposes. It is essential that anyone concerned over these issues should consult an experienced lawyer.

The Law

  • There is no obligation on members of the public to answer questions put to them by by MI5 officers.
  • Under most circumstances, there is no obligation on members of the public to assist police officers with inquiries. Important exceptions include:
    • If you are stopped at an airport, harbour or other port under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, you are obliged to answer questions about your own activities (but not about the activities of others). You could be found guilty of an imprisonable offence if you don't comply with this obligation.
    • Section 38b of the Terrorism Act 2000 creates a legal obligation to disclose information that you believe might assist in preventing an act of terrorism (Section 38b is an amendment to the Terrorism Act 2000 introduced by the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001). It is extremely rare for charges to be brought under this section.
    • The Terrorism Act 2000 creates an obligation to inform police if information that you obtain in the course of your work leads you to suspect that someone has committed certain kinds of terrorism offence (mainly concerned with the use of money or property for terrorist purposes).
  • Under almost all circumstances (including all the situations mentioned above), you are entitled to consult a solicitor before answering questions put to you by the police or other authorities.

How terrorism investigations put people at risk

  • Terrorism investigations are often very wide-ranging and target large numbers of people. Innocent links between people may give rise to suspicions of terrorist activity. When you are questioned by police, you do not know what information - accurate or inaccurate - they already hold about you. You do not know how information that you provide may be used.
  • The definition of terrorism in British law is very wide and is open to varying interpretations. Activities previously regarded as legitimate or as minor offences may now be labelled as terrorist, with important consequences for the way they are investigated and for the likely penalties. For a number of offences, recent terrorism legislation sets aside the principle of innocent until proven guilty and in effect makes it necessary for a defendant to prove their innocence.
  • People who have been approached by MI5 officers are often subjected to repeated and problematic attention from MI5, whether or not they initially provided the information requested.
  • People who are not British citizens are particularly vulnerable to pressure.
  • For all these reasons, an ill-considered comment to a police or intelligence officer can have serious consequences that can be very hard to reverse. It can put you at risk of eventual prosecution, and it can can add fuel to an ill-founded investigation.

Our advice

  • Obtain advice from a lawyer experienced in terrorism cases before answering any questions on these matters from police or MI5 officers.
  • Do this even if you have not been detained but have only been asked to provide information. You should tell the officers concerned that you will be doing this, and you should obtain their names and telephone numbers. Do not be drawn into any discussion with the officers.
  • Do not be dissuaded from this by any threats or promises that police or MI5 officers may make.
  • Many people do not obtain legal advice because they are worried that it will be expensive. They are wrong: if you are detained you are entitled to a solicitor free of charge. Sometimes people do not do so because they think that the situation is 'simple', or that consulting a solicitor will 'make things worse'. This is not the case and it is a common error. A solicitor is able to discuss matters calmly with the police, obtain relevant information, advise you as the best course of action to take and keep a note of all that is going on. On many occasions the presence of a solicitor may clear matters up quickly and ensure that the police behave appropriately.
  • You should always feel free to ask police if you have to answer questions; if you have to consent to your property being searched; and if you are under arrest or are free to leave. This is because on some occasions the police may detain you in circumstances where they know are not entitled to do so but on the basis that you have never raised an objection. However, they may not reveal that to you, unless you ask. In some situations if you say calmly you would rather not answer questions, or rather not have your premises searched, the police may not be able to do so.
  • Remain calm; be courteous.

Our Views

  • Ordinary politcal activities should be no concern of the police or intelligence services. We urge people not to discuss such activities with the police or intelligence services.
  • We wish the police every success in tackling real crime, especially crimes of violence.
  • We call for the repeal of Britain's terrorism laws. We believe that these laws promote miscarriages of justice, promote a culture of suspicion, divide communities and create conditions that could foster terrorism. We think it would be better for all crimes to be investigated and prosecuted under the ordinary criminal law, with the all the usual safeguards for people who come under suspicion.