Comment | The Power of Civic Resistance: Reflections on the Muhammad Rabbani Case

A month ago, human rights activist Muhammad Rabbani went on trial after refusing to give up his computer passwords to police officers. Rabbani's brave stance sets an admirable example, and raises important questions, for all those fighting discrimination, oppression and injustice, Naila Ahmed argues.

New in Ceasefire - Posted on Thursday, November 9, 2017 18:44 - 0 Comments

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Owen Jones’s recent column on his sister’s stop at a UK airport under Terrorism legislation is a daily experience for close to 50,000 UK nationals each year. Among this number, it is Muslims who often experience the most egregious examples of questioning. Owen Jones would have done better to reflect on the plight of individuals such as my colleague, Muhammad Rabbani, whose case exemplifies the endemic issues presented by the legislation — issues that are only recently impacting non-Muslims too.

The Pass with Privacy campaign went live the weekend before CAGE’s International Director, Muhammad Rabbani was charged for failing to provide the passwords to his devices. But work on his case and the campaign as a whole began many months before that.

In November 2016, Rabbani was stopped under Schedule 7, a power which affects up to 50,000 people each year, as it allows police at borders to demand access to electronic devices even when there is no suspicion of crime.

Rabbani refused to hand over the passwords to his devices, as they held confidential and sensitive material entrusted to him by a CAGE client seeking legal redress for years of torture endured at the hands of senior US officials.

On previous stops, Rabbani had refused to provide his passwords and the police took no further action. On this occasion, however, he was arrested despite carrying client confidential material. Rabbani was released on bail and asked to return to the police station on 27 January 2017 to learn whether he would be charged or not. This was later postponed to 17 May 2017.

In the months that followed his arrest, the CAGE team began planning for what would become the Pass with Privacy Campaign. We took the arrest as an opportunity, working behind the scenes alongside Privacy, Human Rights and Muslim NGOs, and carefully planing each step of the campaign with a specific purpose in mind: To highlight the significance of his case for all those carrying confidential information, and to call out the injustice of the Schedule 7 stop. 

The campaign had a set of goals and objectives, one of which was to challenge the legality of the powers currently allowing police to act in a discriminatory manner. Another was to spark a debate around Schedule 7 and the privacy issues surrounding it. The third was to empower the Muslim community, to re-frame and reshape the perceptions surrounding the necessity of taking a principled stance, even if that results in conviction and time in prison.

A campaign about civil disobedience and positive messaging

Throughout this period, Rabbani maintained his innocence. It was important, for the Muslim community in particular, for everyone to see and recognise that he was proud to take this stand and wanted others to know his reasons for doing so.

Rabbani’s case stood as a reminder that some laws are unjust and must be opposed. The Schedule 7 power has allowed over half a million people to be stopped and interrogated by police, and their digital devices confiscated, in what amounts to an intrusive “digital strip search” without any need for cause or suspicion.

It is a universal truth that unjust laws must be challenged. As Martin Luther King said, we have “not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

We must not forget that slavery was once legalised in Britain, Apartheid was enshrined in South African law, and the segregation of blacks in America under Jim Crow laws was a legal reality. The abolition of these abhorrent, yet officially enshrined, laws only came as a result of a unified stance against injustice, often pursued through acts of civil disobedience.

When planning for Rabbani’s case and campaign, there was a recognition that if he was charged and later convicted, this would be seen as “yet another poor Muslim being targeted”, another victim to the system… So we made a deliberate choice to discuss his case in a positive way, to help the Muslim community, and the wider public, see that action can, and should, be taken against injustice from all those who face the injustice every day.

Rabbani was taking this stance not only for the torture victim he was trying to protect, but also for others across the wider society to feel empowered enough themselves and take a stand against injustice when time came to do so.

Civil liberty groups need to do more for Muslim citizens

The reaction of some civil liberty groups, however, has been disappointing and is best reflected in the recent piece by Owen Jones about his sister, Eleanor, who was detained under Schedule 7.

The story highlights how this power can be abused and how it breaches the civil liberties of us all. Owen’s sister stated that she is “more worried about people who don’t have my privileges or voice who are wrongfully harassed by this law” As she put it, “I want my case to be used to bring attention to their injustice.”

However, Jones’s article fails to mention even one of the numerous Muslims who have taken action against this draconian power, from Muhammad Rabbani to Asif Bhayat, Zabir Ahmed or Faizah Shaheen, all part of the minority group he acknowledges are impacted the most. Their voices, and their stand, are deafeningly absent from the piece.

This gives an inaccurate picture of the reality. A 2014 Cambridge University study into Schedule 7 shows that 88% of those stopped were Muslim. There needs to be recognition that this has been, and continues to be, a lived experience for thousands of Muslims in the UK for more than 17 years now.

Things will not change, until public commentators and civil liberty groups recognise this as an issue of structural discrimination and targeting of Muslims, and that there is a growing number of Muslims resisting this oppression.

What civil liberty groups need to do more of is give a voice to Muslims and support them, not erase them from the conversation. Otherwise, these groups would be simply contributing to the very structural discrimination we are all seeking to dismantle.

We need more of these moral victories to inspire us to greater success

The case eventually came to trial at the end of September 2017. Rabbani’s defence in Court was strong; the Judge accepted both his good character and the fact he was protecting sensitive material belonging to a torture survivor. Ultimately, however, she was compelled by the law to find him guilty. Put simply, the Judge was bound by an unjust law.

The case starkly showed up this injustice: Officers testified repeatedly in court that they could stop anyone they please, with or without suspicion, even on a simple hunch. It is the law that allows such officers to deploy this kind of power without oversight or reason. This makes it a recipe for abuse.

The judgement will be appealed at the High Court, but as Rabbani said when leaving Court last month: “We have won the moral argument”. This was confirmed by the community’s response, from the flowers and chocolates greeting him outside the police station on the day he was charged, to the flowers and cheers from those gathered outside the Court on the day he was convicted.

During the trial, a sea of people waited outside the public gallery, hoping to get a seat. A solidarity event was held outside the court, and was attended by over 100 people who took time out of their busy work schedules, on a Monday afternoon, to show their support.

It was nothing short of a watershed moment for minority communities, who have had enough of being discriminated against under a two-tier justice system.

Rabbani’s was a courageous step: to resist an oppressive law even when this meant the risk of spending time in prison.

When the odds are stacked against you and the justice system doesn’t really deliver justice, it is time for conscientious citizens and activists to look for new ways to bring about change, to be creative and bold. Without this kind of resistance there can be no change.

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Naila Ahmed has a legal background with a specialism in human rights and counterterrorism law. She is a senior officer at the international civil liberties NGO, CAGE. With extensive casework experience, focusing on supporting victims of torture abuse.

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