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SACC Statement on the arrest of Issam Hijjawi

SACC Statement on the arrest of Issam Hijjawi Basalat, 4 September 2020

SACC is dismayed at the prosecution of Issam Hijjawi Basalat, a Palestinian doctor living in Edinburgh, under a particularly controversial provision of the UK’s draconian anti-terrorism legislation. We are dismayed still further by the involvement of MI5 in the investigation, by the apparent long-term infiltration by MI5 of political activity in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and by claims made in court that Issam and his co-defendants were entrapped. In line with our opposition to the UK’s anti-terrorism legislation, we are calling for all charges against Issam and his co-defendants under this legislation to be dropped.

Issam is originally from the occupied West Bank and came to the UK in 1995 to work as a doctor before settling in Scotland in 2010. He now lives in Edinburgh and is a well-known and respected member of the Scottish Palestinian community. In 2017 he served as Chair of the Association of Palestinian Communities in Scotland. The organisation was replaced in 2018 by by the Scottish Palestinian Society. Issam is a member of the new organisation but holds no office in it.

Issam was arrested at Heathrow airport on Saturday 22 August and taken to Belfast. His family home in Edinburgh was seached by Police Scotland. On Tuesday 25 August he came before Belfast Magistrates’ Court, appearing remotely by video link from Musgrove police station. He is one of 10 people arrested so far as part of “Operation Arbacia”, an ongoing operation that PSNI says “will look into every aspect of the activities of the New IRA in its entirety.” According to PSNI, the operation “involves partners such as MI5, Police Scotland, An Garda Siochana and the Metropolitan Police Service”.

The term “New IRA” refers to a grouping formed in 2012 from the Real IRA and other dissident republican paramilitaries. In its own statements it generally refers to itself as the “Irish Republican Army”. The Irish Republican Army is on the UK’s list of proscribed terrorist organisations, but the term “New IRA” is not used in the list.

Paramilitaries characterised in the media as “New IRA” and acting in the name of the Irish Republican Army have claimed or accepted responsibility for a number of acts of violence. This includes the murder last year of journalist Lyra McKee, for which an apology was issued. Paul McIntyre – a Republican from Derry – was charged in February with the murder, which he denies. Police say their investigation is continuing.

Of the 10 people so far arrested in “Operation Arbacia”, all except Issam Hijjawi are members of Saoradh, a revolutionary political party that aims, according to its constitution, “to establish a 32 county Irish Socialist Republic based upon the constitutional principles of sovereignty, self-determination, public ownership, democracy, liberty, equality, and international fraternity.” In parallel with the arrests,  An Garda Siochana have searched the houses of a number of Saoradh activists as well as Saoradh offices in the Republic of Ireland.

Saoradh was founded in 2016. It is regularly described in the media as having links to the New IRA, but at its launch it was described by chair David Jordan as a “stand-alone” organisation. Operation Arbacia, despite PSNI’s claim to be targeting the New IRA, is quite obviously directed against Saoradh as a political organisation. The name of the operation is a clue. Arbacia is a type of sea urchin that looks rather like the spiny-rayed sun that appears in the Saoradh logo.

Issam Hijjawi is accused of the preparation of terrorist acts – an offence under Section 5 of the Terrorism Act 2006. Section 5 does not necessarily involve, as some people might suppose, preparation of a terrorist attack. Instead, it greatly expands the range of conduct that can be prosecuted under the already over-broad definition of terrorism given in the Terrorism Act 2000. People planning, or considering, travel to Syria have been convicted under Section 5. Actions carried out for the benefit of a proscribed organisation can also be prosecuted under Section 5.

Issam’s co-defendants have been charged with a variety of offences under the terrorism laws. One of them has also been charged with conspiracy to possess explosives with intent to endanger life and conspiracy to possess ammunition with intent to endanger life.

It was said in court that Issam attended an alleged meeting of the New IRA in Omagh on 19 July. The meeting was bugged by MI5.

Issam’s lawyer claimed that his client had been “pestered” into attending the meeting – which he believed would be a public meeting with an “exclusively political purpose” - by an MI5 agent who has been named in court as Dennis McFadden.

Issam says he gave the meeting an update and political analysis of the situation in Palestine. He has had a political connection with Saoradh for several years and has spoken at the Saorah ard fheis.

Issam’s lawyer says his client was entrapped. Similar claims have been made for other defendants.

According to The Irish News1, Issam says he was lured to Belfast after he applied to have his daughter's passport renewed. He says he received a message from the passport office telling him to pick his daughter's passport up from an office in Belfast despite there being a passport office in Glasgow.

Around this time Mr McFadden contacted him and asked him to attend a public meeting in Belfast to speak about Palestine.

When Issam arrived in Belfast on July 17 with his four children McFadden met him at the port and took him to a house that McFadden had rented for him. Two days later McFadden arrived to take him to the public meeting in Belfast, but instead took him to the alleged New IRA meeting in Omagh.

Dennis McFadden is originally from Glasgow and appears to have worked undercover in Northern Ireland for almost ten years. He was apparently a friend of leading Provisional IRA activist Tony Catney, who died of cancer in 2014. McFadden’s relatives regularly hosted Celtic fans travelling to Glasgow for matches2.

Dennis McFadden has now disappeared. According to Saoradh3, his family say they are disgusted by his actions and have refused attempts by MI5 to take them into protective custody.

MI5’s activities are always focussed primarily around protecting the interests of the state rather than protecting the public or upholding the law. Its involvement in a criminal case is therefore always a cause for concern. The allegations surrounding its role in Operation Arbacia are particularly troubling and throw into question the legitimacy of the associated prosecutions.

Comment on the substance of these cases is inappropriate while legal proceedings are live. However, SACC has consistently campaigned for the repeal of Britain’s anti-terrorism laws and, pending repeal, for the laws not to be used. We believe that the best way to deal with politically motivated violence is through the ordinary criminal law. We are therefore calling for charges under anti-terrorism legislation against all the Operation Arbacia defendants to be dropped.

There are now far more terrorism offences on the statute books than there were at the height of the conflict in Northern Ireland. When the “temporary” Prevention of Terrorism Act introduced after the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974 was replaced by the Terrorism Act 2000, the change was widely viewed – despite the disturbingly broad police powers created by the 2000 Act – as reflecting a diminution of the terrorism threat in Northern Ireland and the normalisation of political life there following the Good Friday agreement. We are alarmed to find that the UK’s contemporary constellation of anti-terrorism laws – all built on the Terrorism Act 2000 – are now being used to facilitate a major intervention by UK state forces into political activity in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and that this is already impacting on political activity connected with Palestine.

We are deeply concerned at the effect that MI5 activities and Operation Arbacia may have on legitimate political activity. We agree with Saoradh that the jailing of Operation Arbacia defendants amounts to internment by remand, and we hope that the defendants will be granted bail while the courts deal with these troubling cases.