Racism and State Terror:

The Case of Pakistani students in Britain

(A report from the Justice from the North West 10 Campaign, London.)

In early April, the British media reported  a remarkable ‘blunder’ on part of the British police. A top police officer had revealed crucial information about a number of terror suspects by inadvertently carrying a paper listing such information on his way to see the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street. With expectations thus having been created for a major terrorist operation on 8 April, armed police carried out a number of raids in the North West of England and arrested twelve Pakistani students. One, a Liverpool University student, was thrown to the ground and held there at gunpoint for an hour, before being interrogated for several more hours. Several UK cabinet ministers made statements implicating the students in a terrorist conspiracy. “We are dealing” said Prime Minister Gordon Brown “with a major terrorist plot…. We had to act pre-emptively to ensure the safety of the public”.
However after further intensive interrogations and searches of their houses, their mobile phones, hard discs and the localities where they lived, not a shred of evidence could be found against them. They had been arrested on terrorism charges but in the third week of May, the Manchester police said they were innocent and they were ‘released’. However, 10 of them (all Pakistani citizens) were immediately detained as Category A prisoners and had their visas withdrawn under an ‘administrative rule of immigration’ for ‘Islamic extremism’ and as a threat to national security.
None of these students (or their lawyers) was told, then or at any time later of any evidence against them; however, their bail application was refused on May 13 and the next bail hearing is as far away as July 27. Some were held in Strangeways in Manchester, others in Milton Keynes, Leeds, and also in Belmarsh, the notorious jail which is said to be the worst prison in Europe and is called Britain’s Guantanamo. Others were constantly moved – from one high security prison to another. Through this whole period they have been allowed no contact with their families. 
This case is a terrifying demonstration of how far civil liberties and basic rights have been rendered meaningless in Britain. The stampede of legislation since 2000 has created a raft of police powers and newly-defined offences that criminalise the most vulnerable communities in the name of fighting terrorism. This is all abetted by the media through their sensational reporting which promotes the politics of fear.
It has led to resistance in the form of a series of campaigns across Britain, fighting both individual cases and as in the case of The Campaign Against Criminalising Communities (CAMPACC), taking on the laws and procedures themselves. In the case of the 10 Pakistani students, a strong campaign, Justice for the North West 10 (J4NW10) has built up across the country, involving students, university lecturers, community activists, lawyers and trade unions. On June 8, the Campaign was also launched in Pakistan at a packed Public Meeting where the families of seven of the ten students met for the first time.
It is clear that these students have been targeted purely because they are young Muslims and because they are from a country which is increasing being described by the US and British governments as the central hub of terrorism, even as civilians there are facing intensive bombing in the name of a ‘war on terror’, leading to a massive humanitarian crisis.
Their experience of being incarcerated, denied legal aid and threatened with deportation even though all charges against them have been dropped due to lack of any evidence has become increasingly common. The government can now simply disappear people, who then have no access to basic legal rights or any system of accountability. And under a new counter-terrorist strategy anyone can be labeled a terrorist or a ‘clean skin’ – a term meaning, according to the Daily Telegraph, (10 May 2009) ‘a highly trained professional killer whose blameless background provides not the slightest clue as to their true, evil intent’. It means that nearly every one of the 10,000 or so Pakistani students in this country could be targeted.
In these and other similar cases involving secret evidence, the trial consists of a drama of the absurd. As the writer Andy Worthington explains, this centres around the Special Immigration Appeals Court (SIAC) where ‘special advocates are responsible for representing the accused in closed sessions involving the use of secret evidence, but are prevented from revealing anything about those sessions to the men they represent. This impenetrable barrier to transparency also works in the other direction, as suspects cannot brief the advocates effectively when they are kept in the dark regarding the details of the case against them.’ Worthington quotes Dinah Rose QC talking about a case on which she had served as a special advocate: “The special advocates were told what the evidence was,” she said, “but we were prohibited from discussing the material with the appellant or his lawyers. We were simply unable to offer any resistance at all to the application, in the absence of any instructions, which might have explained or cast a different light on the evidence.” 
As a result, the judge revoked the man’s bail, and ordered him to be sent to Belmarsh. Remembering this ruling, Rose said, “I can still recall my deep feeling of shame when I heard the appellant ask the judge the question: why are you sending me to prison? To which the judge replied: ‘I cannot tell you that.’ I could not believe that I was witnessing such an event in a British court. I could not believe that nobody protested or made a fuss. They simply took him to jail, without any explanation at all.”
Back in Pakistan, the families of the Pakistani students have made enormous sacrifices to send their children to the UK – some selling their family jewellery others going into debt. In a letter to Gordon Brown on May 15, four of the parents urged him to release them and allow them to continue their studies or at least allow them to sit their exams. They wrote, “Our kids are in prison, thousand of miles away from us having no contact with them for the last 43 days. Agonies, stresses which we are experiencing at the moment cannot be simply explained….Our children are still being punished for crimes that they never committed …
On June 10 one of the students Tariq Ur Rehman agreed to accept voluntary deportation. On the plane back to Pakistan, as he returned accompanied by four British police officers, he explained to a journalist that he was a widower with three young children and he had had to choose between 18 months in a Category A prison or going back to Pakistan, giving up his postgraduate studies and hopes for the future and losing the savings he had invested in his education. He said he had not been involved with or associated with any activity which was in any way suspicious. He knew several of the others arrested with him and they also had “normal lives”, not involved in or associated with extremism. “I have been arrested just because I am a Muslim and I belong to Pakistan. They have destroyed my life, my future.”
He said he was also returning as a protest over the fact that he was held as a Category A prisoner in Belmarsh, where he was very disturbed by the humiliating strip searches and searches of cells with dogs.
There is no guarantee that he will not be tortured or treated as a terrorist in Pakistan. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has already said that he is likely to be ‘debriefed’, or interrogated.
The extent to which Pakistani government is implicated in these arrests is not yet clear. Initially, they had refused to sign the Memorandum of Understanding under which the British government was to have the right to deport any Pakistani on the grounds that he or she had become a threat to national security without having to follow due process. The lawyer who represented Tariq Ur Rehman and accompanied him back to Pakistan had been asked to intervene by the Pakistani High Commission. “The whole case is a face-saver for Gordon Brown and the Labour government”, says Tariq Mehmood, a spokesperson for the J4NW10, “they know there was never any terror plot!”

A major protest is planned outside the Special Immigration Appeals Tribunal (SIAC) at the end of July. With protesters of all kinds, environmentalists, trade unionists and many others increasingly treated as terrorists, it hopes to draw the support of a wide variety of activists. As Tariq Mehmood puts it “The gloves are nearly off and it won’t simply be the Muslims who feel the heat.”