With MPs voting today on a new, 42-day detention limit for terror suspects, Lee Glendinning spoke to a 23-year-old student about what it is like to be detained under the existing terrorism legislation.
By Lee Glendinning | “A minute goes like an hour and an hour like a day inside a cell … You lose all concept of day or night. There are no emotions: you can’t cry, you can’t laugh…
“Six days felt like six years. I dread to think what 42 days would feel like: 28 days is harsh enough … the idea of 42 days is phenomenal.
“The ironic thing is, paedophiles, murderers, bank robbers, kidnappers and extortionists are held for four days – 96 hours maximum time. And terror suspects are on a par with all of those.”
Rizwaan Sabir, 23, a student at Nottingham University, found himself detained in a segregated and sealed-off prison wing last month, arrested and held under the Terrorism Act after arriving at university and catching up with a friend for coffee.
For six days, he was kept in prison without charge, under 24-hour surveillance and interrogated daily about his views on al-Qaida and Islamic literature.
It was a subject close to his heart. Four months earlier, Rizwaan, who was doing his masters in international relations, had clicked on an al-Qaida document online while researching his dissertation, which focused on the difference between various military organisations. The document was an edited version of the al-Qaida training manual, downloaded from a US government website.
After completing a substantial chunk of the work in January, he sent the document to a colleague, Hisham Yezza, 30, who worked on campus and had access to a free printer.
On the morning of May 14, Rizwaan could have had no idea that his next week would be spent in a cell, accused of the commission and preparation of an act of terrorism, the issue of whether he would be charged or not hanging in the balance.
“After the coffee I put my stuff down and walked into the gents. As soon as I walked in, there were three policemen behind me saying ‘Don’t move! Don’t Move! Who are you?’ And I was like, ‘I’m a student. Who are you?’
“They said: ‘Well, we are police officers looking for someone who matches your description.”’
Shortly afterwards, they arrested him under section 41 of the Terrorism Act for the alleged commission, preparation and instigation of acts of terrorism; Hisham Yezza had been arrested 10 minutes beforehand.
When Rizwaan reached the police station, the second floor had been entirely sealed off. It was, he said, like some form of solitary confinement.
“The restricted access made me feel like a real criminal. It felt like I was in the seventies – the lights were off and there was one table; all the cells were empty. I thought, ‘What the hell is going on here?'”
For the first 48 hours, he was told nothing, but was placed under 24-hour surveillance.
”They watched everything you did and wrote it down. I would read a book and they would write down what I was reading. They would follow me when I had a shower and stand right there. You couldn’t take one step out of the cell without someone following you. They would stop and do random searches of the cell. It was so humiliating
“Day six was the hardest. Knowing your life depends on a decision that someone else takes … when you have done something with the most clean-hearted intention. It really is psychological torture.”
Officers from the West Midlands counter-terrorism branch told him they were searching his car, computer and the family home, making him feel panicked about his family’s reaction. His mother, father, grandmother and two siblings were at home in the suburbs of Nottingham.
His colleagues on campus were also questioned in relation to the investigation, with the focus on whether he had a girlfriend, whether he drank alcohol and whether he had always worn a beard.
“They were quizzed by police for five hours … they said to my personal tutor that if this had been a young, blond, Swedish PhD student, then this would never have happened. The investigating officers were making these statements when I was detention.”
At one point, officers began asking him about tents they had found in his car, which he explained belonged to friends who had used them while taking part in a hunger strike.
”They found the tents and were trying to create an adverse influence. ‘Have you been camping?’ they asked ‘Are you planning to go camping? Have you been paintballing? Are you planning to go paintballing?”’
On the sixth day, without realising his freedom was imminent, he was told by a female police officer that the document he had looked at was deemed illegitimate for research purposes by the university, and if he ever looked at it again he could face further detention. He believed he was about to be charged.
He said: “It was breaking … absolutely terrifying, I was sitting there thinking, ‘God, am I ever going to get out of here?'”
When told he was to be released without charge, he walked into the room to speak with his solicitor.
“I was shaking so violently I fell to the floor. I went back to the room and just cried and cried … Somehow, I had managed to get my emotions back.”
Returning home to his family was traumatic in its own way: the house, he said, no longer felt like the home he knew. It had been searched, his belongings had been taken, his room felt like it had been rummaged through, and his home felt like it had been broken into.
He still feels a sense of dread when he sees police or hears a siren. He thinks about the possibility he could have been charged, that he could be waiting right now on remand for a court date. He finds the idea of returning to study a difficult one – although it is what he wants – and is seeking counselling for an experience he says has scarred him deeply.
Rizwaan’s colleague, Hisham Yezza, was also released without charge after six days, but he is now being held in a detention centre and contesting moves to deport him to Algeria.
Concerned about what he calls the climate of fear the government has created in Britain, which he says has in turn prompted a society of suspicion, Rizwaan feels the UK is becoming a place that does not allow a natural interest and involvement in politicisation.
“Police are paranoid that every Muslim who is young and has a beard and is slightly involved in politics is a national security threat,” he says.
“I was a regular student who was researching a phenomenon we encounter in today’s society.”
About this article
This article was first published on guardian.co.uk on Wednesday June 11 2008. It was last updated at 01:11 on June 11 2008.