On Campus

Terrorism arrests at British university raise questions about academic freedom

Student and prof researching terrorism arrested for downloading al-Qaida guide

Academics at a university in central England say a Muslim student and staffer were detained for nearly a week under British terrorism laws for attempting to print an al-Qaida manual as part of the student’s dissertation research.

The arrest of 22-year-old Nottingham University master’s student Rizwaan Sabir and staff member Hicham Yezza has riled professors and raised questions about how closely authorities should be policing university work. Both were released without charge six days later, although Yezza, an Algerian, was subsequently re-arrested for violating immigration laws and is being deported.

Sabir was writing on the American approach to “al-Qaida in Iraq,” according to his dissertation supervisor Rod Thornton, a terrorism researcher and a former British soldier. Sabir’s supporters say he downloaded and sent the al-Qaida training document to Yezza, an acquaintance, because he didn’t want to pay the printing fee. Someone then alerted police, who swooped in and arrested them both on May 14.

Sabir’s academic adviser, Bettina Renz, said Saturday that the manual — freely available on the U.S. Department of Justice website — was “obviously” part of her student’s research into Islamic extremism. “If I was researching the subject very likely I would have looked at this myself,” Renz said. “The severity of the reaction is just mind-boggling to me, to be honest.”

Others are furious that Yezza, 30, a former PhD student at Nottingham, faces deportation for what legislator Alan Simpson said looked like an attempt to make up for a botched terror raid. “I can see no reason for an emergency deportation of Mr. Hicham (Yezza) other than to cover the embarrassment of police and intelligence services,” Simpson said in a letter written to Liam Byrne, Britain’s borders and immigration minister.

Nottinghamshire police declined to speak about the arrests, but in a statement carried in various newspapers, including The Muslim News and The Times Higher Education Supplement, they argued their actions were justified. Britain’s Home Office, which is responsible for immigration matters, refused to comment on the case.

Nottingham University said in a statement that it was re-evaluating how to provide protection to “those who are conducting legitimate research in what might be controversial areas.” A spokeswoman for the university did not immediately respond to telephone and e-mail messages seeking comment Sunday.

Sabir and Yezza’s supporters plan a free-speech demonstration Wednesday during which staff will read excerpts from the manual in front of the university library, according to Alf Nilsen, a professor at Nottingham’s School of Politics and International Relations. He said the arrests were a violation of human rights and academic freedoms. “I do think this particular incident actually illustrates the potentially draconian consequences of anti-terror legislation,” he said.

Human rights groups have complained that Britain’s anti-terrorism laws — which bar the possession of “material useful for terrorism” — could criminalize researchers or even just the merely curious. Authorities here have previously foundered at least once before in an attempt to prosecute pupils based on their reading material.

In February a British court overturned the convictions of five Bradford University students jailed for downloading information on bomb-making and terrorism from the Internet. Police found a U.S. military guide to making explosive devices, a suicide bombing manual and jihadi songs, but a Court of Appeal ruled that prosecutors had failed to make the case that the men planned to use the information to incite terrorism. The students said they were simply researching Islam.

-with a report from CP

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