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Nottingham scholar held for 6 days under anti-terror law

Postgraduate and employee are arrested over research material. Melanie Newman reports

When postgraduate student Rizwaan Sabir was arrested under anti-terror legislation on suspicion of possessing extremist literature, he thought he would be released in a "couple of hours".

After all, his studies were focused on Islamic extremism and the document that had prompted the police reaction - an edited version of the al-Qaeda training manual - is freely available on the internet.

But rather than being held for a matter of hours, Mr Sabir, along with a member of the university's clerical staff, was held for six days before being released without charge on 20 May.

"I couldn't believe it," Mr Sabir, a politics masters student at the University of Nottingham, told Times Higher Education. "In the next six days, the power of the state hit me as hard as it could. It was sheer psychological torture - particularly in the last 24 hours when they were umming and ahhing about whether to charge me."

Mr Sabir said he had downloaded the 1,500-page document from a site he had found via the search engine Google, in preparation for a PhD on radical Islamic groups.

"If you are doing research for a PhD you need primary sources. I said in my PhD proposal that the strategic approach used by these groups is the most important fundamental area (requiring study)."

Times Higher Education discovered versions of the manual on, a site that gives details of storm, disease and other risks facing the US.

An al-Qaeda training manual - for which the author credit is "al-Qaeda" - is also available from the internet bookseller, priced at $14.95 (£7.55). It is given a rating of one star, out of five, in a review by an Amazon customer who notes: "The information it contains can be found on the internet."

Mr Sabir said he forwarded the document to the staff member who was also arrested, simply because the latter had access to a printer.

The university called in the police after the copy of the manual was found on the staff member's computer. Nottingham said that "there was no reasonable rationale for this person to have that information", as he was not an academic or a student.

"The police were called in on the basis of reasonable anxiety and concern," the university said.

On hearing of the police presence outside the employee's office, Mr Sabir texted him, and was subsequently arrested himself.

Mr Sabir and a number of Nottingham academics have said that the case raises fundamental questions about academic freedom in the midst of government efforts to clamp down on Islamic extremism on campus.

As Times Higher Education went to press, 26 academics at the university had signed a petition calling on the university to uphold academic freedom.

Vanessa Pupavac, a lecturer in international relations at Nottingham, said that Mr Sabir's treatment meant that any academics pursuing "the question of the character of modern-day terrorists" would need to "consider their material" and could risk arrest.

She said she feared that the university would create guidelines limiting academic freedom as a result of the case. "Putting material out of bounds will hinder our understanding of terrorism and our ability to address the problem," she said.

The University and College Union was due to debate the issue at its annual conference this week. Sally Hunt, the union's general secretary, said: "If we really want to tackle problems like extremism then we need to be safe to explore the issues. The last thing we need is people too frightened to research a subject because they fear being arrested."


In a statement released to university staff and students, Paul Greatrix, registrar, said:

"The student and staff member were detained in response to a low-key investigation carried out jointly by the Nottinghamshire Constabulary and the West Midlands Counter Terrorism Unit.

"This was a thorough and sensitively handled investigation, which has identified no risks to the campus community or wider public.

"Members of the university can be reassured that we take very seriously our duty to ensure that students and staff are free to study and work in a safe, secure and tolerant environment. There are many ways in which we all work to deliver such conditions and to ensure that everyone is able to enjoy freedom of speech and expression within the law. The university is an open and free arena for debate and dissent.

"One issue to arise from recent events is the level of discussion and guidance on the rights and responsibilities of staff and students in terms of research and freedom of speech.

"There are basic requirements here such as the law relating to incitement of racial hatred and the 1986 Education Act, which relates to freedom of speech in universities.

The University Research Committee is currently considering the enhancement of our research ethics framework.

"The concern here will be to ensure that we are able to provide appropriate protection to those who are conducting legitimate research."

Readers' comments (11)

  • This story leaves out some important details. The university employee, Hicham Yezza, is still in jail. The university says this is about "unrelated immigration matters" - but that is woefully disingenuous. The university also says (in their statement printed here) that the investigation was handled "sensitively" - but their homes were raided, computers confiscated, etc. The university can create all the committees and reports it wants - but if it makes a habit of being as passive as it was in this instance, freedom of speech and research will be much the worse for it.

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  • If the situation described is what Nottingham considers as 'sensitively handled', presumably water-boarding would be 'rigorous questioning' and a death in custody an 'unfortunate withdrawal from the PhD program'.

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  • I agree with the first two responders, Frank and John. This is disgusting. And talk about wondering how terrorists are born. These guys will hardly be ardent supporters of the State after being unjustly held without charge for six (plus) days. I know I wouldn't be. And when the University talks about being an "open and free arena for debate and dissent", as with far too many universities these days, it seems the allowed dissent is only the leftist approved variety which extends to its own form of virulent fascism. Whether you agree with my categorisation or not, I think it would be disingenuous or naïve to argue that one is free to be an unpopular dissenter or that universities seek equal protection for all, or apply their policies even-handedly. At my university the approved dissent is allowed to openly permeate the university to the point where the extreme biases are clear even in course descriptions, but contrary points of view, even those calling for objectivity, are absent or actively suppressed. Approved one-sidedness is unfortunately quickly replacing free and reasoned dissent. And, I wonder who anti-hate-speech laws are really meant to protect? They seem to protect the perpetrators more than the victims and the public at large, who might be better protected if the hate was in the open, able to be openly and publicly debated, and defended against, rather than pushed underground. Otherwise, publics are becoming quite naïve to many undercurrents in their societies, which States or media suppress knowledge of. I also wonder whether there is more to this case than we know? The grounds for holding these men seems rather tenuous to me. Is Mr Sabir’s research likely to uncover something the State wants to suppress? Anyway, I am left wondering whether I possess so-called extremist literature? I certainly possess literature that was once banned and burnt. Are we going to see “book”-burning squads?! Are more people going to be jailed for what they might think, rather than what they have done? I think we are kidding ourselves that any semblance of free speech still thrives anywhere it might have once done so!

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  • Open Letter from two University of Nottingham employees concerning the Hicham Yezza case.

    As employees of the University of Nottingham we share your concern that the recent arrest of Hicham Yezza, an administrator in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures, and Rizwaan Sabir, a masters student in the School of Politics and International Relations, has resulted in the arrest, and possible deportation, of Mr Yezza.

    However, of equally strong concern to many in the institution has been the irresponsible, opportunistic and unethical conduct of many colleagues involved in the campaign to support Mr Yezza. We do not believe that sympathy for Mr Yezza's position should be incompatible with respect for one's colleagues, or the truth. Indeed, as scholars and academics, we believe that academic freedom involves a responsibility to veracity and honesty which has been repeatedly betrayed by those speaking for Mr Yezza.

    We are confident that the University's declarations about upholding academic freedom have been reflected in its response to the arrests. We do not believe that the arrests constitute a challenge or threat to academic freedom. The course of events was unfortunate, and for Mr Yezza catastrophic, but had Mr Sabir not forwarded the material for illegitimate printing, exploiting Mr Yezza's position (in his turn, he was exploiting his own function in the institution), then this situation would never have arisen. Perhaps the very safety, the academic freedom, that a University provides for the examination of controversial material obscured the fact that, for many people outside a School of Politics, such documents might appear dangerous or threatening. But it is significant that Mr Sabir chose not to ask either his tutor, or his own School, to print the materials. Furthermore, had Mr Yezza been able to substantiate his claim to the University that he had the appropriate legal employment status, as all employees are required to do when they take up a post, or even had he been able laterm when the University asked him, as it is legally required to do, to provide documentation to substantiate such a claim, he would not have been arrested for immigration irregularities. Again, the responsibility for his arrest appears to relate to his own failure to provide appropriate

    We believe that the University has shown extraordinary restraint in the face of ignorant attacks on its employees (by which we mean spokespersons, managers and administrative staff who were caught up in this matter, and faced with awful decisions), many of those attacks emanating from their colleagues. The prejudicial language employed by those campaigning for Mr Yezza has no place in such a campaign, and revolts many of us who are nonetheless equally appalled by the current Terror and Immigration policies. The violent expression of concerns about academic freedom we are currently hearing is particularly misplaced.

    The University has been for some time already in consultation with its employees to develop guidelines designed to avoid such unnecessary arrests in the future. We are hopeful that this process may now be more rapidly brought to a conclusion, given the evident scope for misunderstanding, even amongst senior academics, of the nature and responsibility of academic freedom.

    The formal support of the University for Mr Yezza, which included a letter from the Vice-Chancellor to the Home Secretary, and which, we might add, includes hosting protest marches on his behalf, and doubtless the turning of a blind eye to numerous faxes, emails and telephone calls emanating from University machines, is something we acknowledge and applaud. Our management's ultimate reaction to the abuse of several of its employees, and the ways in which the campaign has brought the name of the University into disrepute, is something which we will watch with interest: again, we suspect that under the circumstances the University's managers will take the view that open debate, and academic freedom, is the most important principle, even if, with many of us, they share the disappointment at the behaviour of many colleagues.

    Dr Sean Matthews (School of English)
    Dr Macdonald Daly (School of Modern Languages and Cultures)

    The authors both contributed to the drafting of the UCU Motion in support of Mr Yezza which was unanimously carried at the annual conference last week.

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  • Holy smokescreen, Batman! Are you two (Matthews and Daly) for real? Sounds to me like you're gunning for a promotion. Such a 'sensible' perspective.

    What you have done, of course, is to find ways to blame the victims here. If there were, in fact, problems with Yezza's immigration status, then surely the University of Nottingham would not have employed him - or are you accusing your Personnel department of incompetence? In any event, the most plausible story here, even if there are questions about his immigration status, is that the police are trying to save face by not walking away from this one empty-handed.

    As for Sabir - if you want to scold him for avoidance of printing costs, then scold him for avoidance of printing costs. Don't defend the police for arresting him and keeping him in jail for six days - that's not what should happen when a student tries to get some printing without paying.

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  • A frankly hilarious reaction that flies in the face of all reason and good sense. As Frank asks, my eyes have seen it, but my mind refuses to believe that two sensible individuals could write such a thing. Blaming the victims, as Frank notes, is the oldest and lowest trick in the book. The simple fact is that Mr Yezza was Mr Sabir's friend and this is fairly standard and I think something we have all done from time to time. While not the letter of the law, it is hardly serious.

    In short: this open letter seems to support Hicham, but oddly slap him and his supporters simultaneously across the face on a variety of issues. Why didn't you contact them personally with your concerns before writing this?

    It appears here that you are claiming that the University has been attacking unfairly and can be found without fault and that there is no issue for academic freedom here. I will deal, for the sake of brevity, with only the former point.

    This document might cause alarm outside the school of politics and Hich has already said that this is understandable, in both the Guardian and on the BBC, but it is not the place of the University to decide matters upon alarm, but coolly and rationally make decisions as an institution both the community and, crucially in this case, its individual members. When a document is avaliable on Amazon, is the 16th search result for Al Qaeda on google and is linked from the Wikipedia for Al Qaeda, and is linked to a member of the community who seems to have no links to anything dodgy then the university could have very much been more even handed and reasonable, paritcularly when the government guidelines urge caution in this sort of case so not to disturb the community (as this has done, hugely) and has a large quantity of academics working for it that have great expertise in the areas related to terrorism and international relations. The document provided by the minister for education clearly sees contacting the police as a last resort, the inquiry could therefore have been much for through and worked this out in a few hours.

    They have also failed to provide positive support from Hicham, and to my knowledge not at all attempted to respond to the numerous e-mails that have been sent to them. While they have sent a letter, no one knows of the contents and it is highly unlikely they asked for the deportation to be halted or called Hicham a valued member of this community - it is far more likely that they just said I hope you act within the law and act quickly, rather than request that the case be properly heard in a court of law.

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  • Is it really ‘significant’ that Rizwaan Sabir did not ask his tutor or his school to print something for him when he was out of credit? I do not know many students who would do that, regardless of the nature of the research material. Tutors are often busy and office staff are often surly; neither would be obliged to help, anyway. A friend, on the other hand, is a good port of call if you’re looking for a somewhat cheeky favour.

    Would the material in question have been perceived as so ‘dangerous and threatening’ if it had been found on the computer of a Christian or Jewish PA? I strongly doubt it.

    Of course the university has shown ‘restraint’. Having already played an integral part in the imprisonment of a postgraduate and a member of staff, why would the institution then go on to bring about further punitive measures relating to the improper use of its computers, phones and fax machines? That would be ludicrous in terms of PR.

    If this set of guidelines amounts to information on how to avoid being arrested in an academic environment then perhaps it could include a list of red-brick universities which are more liberal than Nottingham. An interesting point of reference is the case of an arrest being made during a peaceful protest by the university’s Palestinian Society in late 2007. Once again, the university authorities appeared to prefer the police-state’s muscle over the option of rational dialogue with those involved.

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  • Frank has seen straight through Matthews and Daly. I hope others will also be able to reject their misrepresentation of the facts.

    It appears as if these two men might be using their position on the UCU to silence real dissent and side instead the with university management.

    Which leads me to ask, if you can't take a stand against university management at a time like this, when innocent people’s lives are turned upside down due to a document available on, when will you?

    It appears as if these two gentlemen are keen to side with management for their own egotistical reasons, these two “academics” have used their entire intellectual mite to try and discredit a hugely successful international campaign.

    Hundreds of people have signed the petition to Free Hich and guarantee academic freedom on campus. Hundreds more stood in torrential rain to demonstrate their anger with the university and their solidarity with the two harassed and detained individuals.

    How many people, on the other hand, support Matthews and Daly’s ludicrous attempt to devalue those with real academic and moral integrity? Two.

    I think these figures speak for themselves.

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  • Matthews and Daly write: "The course of events was unfortunate, and for Mr Yezza catastrophic, but had Mr Sabir not forwarded the material for illegitimate printing, exploiting Mr Yezza's position (in his turn, he was exploiting his own function in the institution), then this situation would never have arisen."

    So we are supposed to believe that a drastic police response and arbitrary detention - for Mr Yezza, now over three weeks - was a legitimate reaction to "illegitimate printing"? According to the same reasoning, we could say Steve Biko's death in custody in 1977 "would never have arisen" had he refrained from criticising apartheid. That would be true - but it says nothing at all about the legitimacy of the response, unless we are to believe that the police (and, in this case, university) are infallible institutions.

    It is surprising two academics would put their name to such an obviously fallacious argument. Nevertheless, when we look at the hundreds of academics in support of Yezza and Sabir, this type of Stalinist reasoning seems, thankfully, to be subject to more ridicule than acceptance.

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  • To grasp the significance of Hich's case, to see how the so-called "war on terror" is being waged using immigration legislation on both sides of the Atlantic, I'd suggest reading "Beyond Norm and Exception: Guantánamo" by Nasser Hussain, Critical Inquiry Volume 33, Number 4, Summer 2007. Irregularities in immigration paper work in this case are being used by the government to give the appearance of a threat deserving incarceration and deportation. And the University's role in this? The informer.

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