Terrorism Cases in the UK: An Interview with Mudassar Arani

Publication: Spotlight on Terror Volume: 2 Issue: 11

Mudassar Arani was born in Uganda and moved to Great Britain in 1972. She is a leading UK Human Rights attorney representing terrorist suspects in Britain, among them the case of Sheikh Abu Hamza, currently facing 11 terrorism-related charges and extradition to the United States. This interview was conducted on 17 September 2004 at the offices of Arani & Co. in Southall by Mahan Abedin, editor of Terrorism Monitor. The following is an excepted version of the original interview. Complete transcripts are available at: www.jamestown.org/images/pdf/st_002_011.pdf

Terrorism Monitor: How many people do you believe have been arrested in the UK on terror related charges since 9/11?

Mudassar Arani: I believe it is approximately just over 500.

TM: I have heard that out of this figure only around 18% have actually been charged and most of these people have in fact been charged with crimes that have nothing to do with terrorism. How do you assess this situation?

MA: Clearly the authorities are not getting their facts right. They are casting their nets wide in the hope of eventually netting someone under terror-related charges.

TM: Would you agree that these arrests are essentially designed to gather information and therefore what on the surface appear as random arrests do in fact have a potent counter-terrorism purpose?

MA: They are casting the net very wide in the hope of eventually netting someone.

TM: Given that the terrorist threat to the UK and other western countries is real don’t you think casting the net wide is justified?

MA: Not really no.

TM: But if it saves lives in the long run surely it is justified.

MA: But how many lives do you destroy in the process? It is interesting to compare the current situation with what happened in Northern Ireland during the height of the troubles. Tens of thousands of innocent people were interned without charge in Northern Ireland and as a result many lives were destroyed. Are we going to see a repetition of that experience with the Muslim community in the UK?

TM: Give us an insight into how these arrests affect the individuals who are detained.

MA: It is not only the detained individuals who are affected but their parents, wives, children and extended family as well. These arrests have huge implications because these people’s lives are usually blighted for the rest of their lives.

TM: Can you give us another specific example?

MA: Ok, I will discuss the case of a client who had been accused of associating with the would-be 20th hijacker.

TM: You are referring to Zaccarias Moussaoui, right?

MA: Yes, that is correct. This client was of Pakistani origin and was an IT professional. When the Police officers executed the arrest warrant against my client he was in Ireland at the time. The Police officers initially led us to believe that they thought he was innocent and they just wanted to ask him some routine questions. We had made arrangements for me and my client to go to the Police station together in order to avoid a Police raid at his house. You see both his wife and his father were not in the best of health and we thought that a Police raid would just exacerbate their condition. We informed the Police of this arrangement but they merely said they will do whatever they have to do. And true to their word the following day they stormed into my client’s house by breaking down the door. Apparently during their search of the property they came across a copy of the Koran and there was some post it notes near the word “Jihad” and the officers thought this was incriminating. This gives you some insights into the type of silly assumptions they make.

TM: What happened to this client?

MA: They detained him for 36 hours but he was released without charge. As a result of his experience my client—who was born and bred in this country—no longer feels at home in the UK and wants to emigrate.

TM: What had specifically brought this client’s name to the attention of the authorities; was he a close associate of Moussaoui or merely an acquaintance?

MA: Again if I could give you all the details you would laugh in disbelief. Suffice to say the information was not stronger than say my client having been seen to have tea with Zaccarias Moussaoui. It is all quite funny really and I wish I could disclose the information publicly.

TM: In what ways do the anti-terrorism legislation introduced after 9/11 coincide and conflict with the Terrorism Act 2000?

MA: I would say it is an extension. We had the 2000 Act which was targeting Muslims much more than any other group anyway. But the 2001 Act introduced after 9/11, especially its Part 4, gave such horrendous powers to the authorities that if you are a non-British national you can be detained indefinitely without charge.

TM: Is Part 4 the defining feature of the 2001 Act?

MA: Yes it is. If the government suspects that any foreigner on British soil has even the remotest connection to terrorism, that individual can be detained without charge indefinitely. But what I don’t understand is if there is evidence against these individuals why is the standard of proof in their cases lowered?

TM: Presumably to safeguard sources and secret information.

MA: But why can’t they treat these individuals in the same manner as British nationals? Why are the authorities consolidating a two-tier system?

TM: I will ask more detailed questions on Part 4 later but firstly what other distinctive features does the 2001 Act have?

MA: It gives a lot of wide powers to the Police to stop and search people. It also lowers the standard of proof in many instances.

TM: Clearly you are not a big fan of this legislation but what do you think the authorities could have done after 9/11? Surely some kind of a reaction was needed.

MA: Why does there have to be a reaction? Why introduce emergency powers when there is no need for them?

TM: So you think that post-9/11 it would have served the interests of this country not to introduce any new counter-terrorism legislation?

MA: Yes, because there are insufficient provisions in the 2001 Act to protect individual rights. Moreover there are sufficient provisions in the 2000 Act to identify and apprehend real terrorists.

TM: So you are adamant that the new legislation has in fact hampered the counter-terrorism effort?

MA: I don’t think it has helped in any way.

TM: Ok let us discuss Part 4 more comprehensively. Apart form foreigners does it target anybody else?

MA: It is a very clever piece of legislation because it buttresses subsequent legislation. I am referring to the Immigration, Nationality and Asylum Act of 2002. Section 40 of that legislation enables the government to divest people of their British nationality on the grounds of national security. Therefore once stripped of their nationality these people are exposed to the full vigour of Part 4 of the 2001 anti-terrorism legislation. The powers contained in Section 40 of the 2002 Immigration Act can only be compared to Hitler’s attempts to divest the Jewish people’s German nationality back in the 1930’s. Can you see how far back we are going?

TM: But how many cases have we had where some one’s British nationality has been taken away by the government? There are none as far as I am aware.

MA: No, that is where you are wrong, Sheikh Abu Hamza is the first trial case.

TM: But I thought they were in the process of divesting him of his British nationality.

MA: No, they have taken away his nationality and we are now appealing against that decision. This is the first case and the government wants to see how they can proceed with this legislation.

TM: So you anticipate many people losing their British nationality in the future?

MA: Of course. Some one told me off the record that they have lined up 200-300 Muslim people whose nationality they plan to take away. Now this is a scary figure! And what do they plan to do with these people, lock them all up in Belmarsh prison? If that is the case they will be producing a concentration camp for the Muslim people in this country.

TM: Does Section 4 of the 2001 Act invest on the authorities the right to detain foreign nationals indefinitely without having to submit any proof of their culpability?

MA: Your statement perfectly captures the essence of that legislation. People have no right to lawyers and they can only have a review after 6 months. Some of the evidence is heard in secret so people don’t have the opportunity to cross-examine. Therefore in many cases people are not even aware of the core case against them.

TM: How many foreign nationals have been detained under Section 4 altogether?

MA: I believe it is 17.

TM: How many are currently being detained?

MA: I believe there are currently 12 people under indefinite detention.

TM: What is the primary nationality amongst these 12?

MA: It is a mixed group but there are quite a few Algerians.

TM: Do you represent anyone of these people?

MA: No, I don’t have the necessary contract under immigration Law to represent anyone of these people. Unfortunately only last week I turned another request down. One of the detainees under section 4 wrote to me and asked me to represent him but unfortunately I can not accept the case.

TM: How are these people being treated?

MA: I have heard that they are not even being provided with Halal food. As a result many have lost weight. I have heard of a case where the detainee is constantly harming himself and on one occasion even tried to commit suicide. He wrote to me later saying: “can’t you hear my screams?” A few of them have written to Imams requesting Fatwas to kill themselves.

TM: Why don’t they just go back to their own countries?

MA: Some can’t go back. I know of a Tunisian detained under Section 4; he can’t go back because he will most certainly be tortured to death. Before he came to the UK he was severely tortured in Tunisia.

TM: How will this situation progress?

MA: It is difficult to say but I think the authorities will continue to detain them indefinitely.

TM: What is the incentive for the British state to detain these people indefinitely?

MA: It is good for scare mongering. They also want to show the public that they are doing something.

TM: You are saying that it allows to them to keep the threat visible?

MA: Yes. Also you have to ask why there are so many cases of high profile arrests. It creates the impression that these arrests serve a political purpose. Also when many of these innocent people are either acquitted or released the media rarely covers the event. Let me give you an example: in September 2003 there was a massive raid and 10-12 people were picked up and I subsequently represented one of the Algerian nationals arrested. There was massive publicity surrounding the case. But my client was released without charge after nine months and the media were nowhere to be seen. Where were the media then? Why can’t they let the public know that both they and the government got it badly wrong? But of course that does not serve their purpose does it?

TM: But don’t you think that at the same time the government is anxious not to overstate the threat in order to avoid a panic? I mean they have to strike a balance, don’t they?

MA: (laughs) Well they are failing in that endeavour, especially because Islamophobia in this country is increasing.

TM: Do you think the British government has an interest in promoting Islamophobia in this country?

MA: Probably.

TM: Ok, let us discuss the extradition case of Sheikh Abu Hamza. How do you assess the attempts on the part of the U.S. government to extradite your client?

MA: As far as Sheikh Abu Hamza’s case is concerned it is a joke. Why is it that no extradition was sought under the old Extradition Act? Is it because the Americans had a greater obligation to deliver proof to support their case under the old Act? Why are they seeking an extradition now after they have struck some political deals with the British Home Secretary David Blunkett? Why is it all a one way flow? I mean if Britain wants to extradite some one from the U.S. it would have to prove a prima facie case but this greater standard of proof no longer applies to the Americans. Why the double standard? Why don’t the Americans want to be accountable to the rest of the world? This all begins with Lofti Raissi who was wrongly implicated in the 9/11 plot. The Americans wanted to extradite him but in the end they could not succeed because they could not prove a prima facie case against him. That was a very big embarrassment for the Americans. They subsequently decided to apply pressure on the UK to make them exempt form the prima facie obligation.

TM: When was the extradition treaty revised?

MA: I can’t remember the exact date but the new legislation is the Extradition Act 2003. The rules are being changed to suit the Americans.

TM: What is your opinion of your client, do you think he is being wrongly accused?

MA: I can’t give you my opinion on my client because that would breach my obligations.

TM: But do you think he has a case to answer?

MA: If Sheikh Abu Hamza has a case to answer why is he not being charged and tried in this country? He was arrested in relation to the hostage taking in Yemen in December 1998 but he was released without charge as there was no evidence against him. In relation to the charges that he was setting up a camp in the U.S., well we all think that is a big joke! James Oujama was alleged to be the mastermind and web designer of “Sekina Security Services” also known as the “Ultimate Jihad Challenge”. Now because I had represented Sulayman Zain ul-Abidin I knew all about this website.

TM: James Oujama is currently cooperating with the U.S. authorities, right?

MA: Yes he entered a plea bargain shortly after being arrested. In the early stages media people in the States would ring me up to interview me and they would say that the FBI is alleging that James Oujama was the webmaster of “Sekina Security Services” and I would just say to them that in that case the FBI are liars! I mean if they can’t even get small facts like that right how can we have faith in these people?

TM: So why are they trying to extradite Sheikh Abu Hamza?

MA: I think he is an embarrassment to this country and the people here just want to get rid of Sheikh Abu Hamza.

TM: But why are the Americans keen to take him?

MA: Look at the timing of his extradition. It all started with the prison abuses in Iraq and at a time when all the heat was on America. This extradition case took some of that heat away; it distracted people from the gross injustices in Iraq.

TM: How long have you been professionally involved with Sheikh Abu Hamza?

MA: He has been my client since 1998. It started when the trustees were trying to evict him from Finsbury Park mosque in London.

TM: It is interesting that you mention Finsbury Park mosque as that is the place most vividly associated with Sheikh Abu Hamza and his fiery speeches. Do you not think that Sheikh Abu Hamza has brought all this on himself through his grandiose statements and gratuitous rhetoric?

MA: (laughs) I am not here to comment on my client’s rhetoric.

TM: But don’t you think he is at least partly responsible for his current misfortune?

MA: I think people are entitled to their opinion. But one thing that amuses me is that we claim we are a civilised country and the freedom of expression is touted as a fundamental right. So why is it being restricted? And if people believe that freedom of expression should only be exercised under certain parameters then should not those constraints be made public to all?

TM: But there is isn’t there? For instance you can not abuse freedom of expression to incite hatred.

MA: That is the parameter where hatred is concerned.

TM: But some would say Sheikh Abu Hamza was doing just that. They would say he was promoting hatred against certain people and governments.

MA: If he was why wasn’t he charged under relevant legislation?

TM: Ok fair enough. But some would say people like Sheikh Abu Hamza are very legally savvy and know when they are right on the verge of the wrong side of the law.

MA: (laughs) I don’t think they are to be honest judging by the number of times they have ignored my legal advice! What I find amusing are the double standards. Remember when Salman Rushdie offended hundreds of millions of Muslims in the world but there were people who reflexively rushed to defend his freedom of expression. Therefore irrespective of the cost some people were anxious to defend his freedom of expression. So why not apply the same principle to Sheikh Abu Hamza?

TM: But some people would say Sheikh Abu Hamza was offending a lot of Muslims in this country.

MA: But some Muslims were not offended by Salman Rushdie, so you can’t turn the tables on me like that! What I am trying to say to you is that certain values are applied selectively.

TM: You said earlier that the Americans initiated extradition proceedings to deflect attention away from Abu Ghraib, but what about now; why are they so keen to have him extradited now?

MA: Sheikh Abu Hamza is of the view (and he does not mind this being disclosed in the public domain) that the Americans are targeting him because of his comments on the collapse of the twin towers and his belief that there was a conspiracy involved on the part of the U.S. government.

TM: Are you saying that Sheikh Abu Hamza believes the U.S. government was complicit in the collapse of the twin towers?

MA: Yes I am.

TM: That is interesting because some Muslim groups in the UK who one assumes would be natural allies of Sheikh Abu Hamza celebrate the 9/11 assaults as a towering day in world history.

MA: Well, Sheikh Abu Hamza believes the U.S. government was aware of the conspiracy and allowed the incident to take place.

TM: So the extradition is some kind of vendetta on the part of the U.S. government?

MA: That is his view.

TM: And presumably you are going to stop the Americans from getting their man?

MA: (laughs).

TM: Do you think you are going to succeed?

MA: I have no idea how the new law will work. Everybody is looking at this case with interest. But it is sad how this is going to set the precedent as Sheikh Abu Hamza has very little sympathy.

TM: That is one of the interesting features of this case, the fact that he has very little sympathy amongst Muslims in the UK because he has made statements that people think undermine the collective interests of Muslims in this country.

MA: Well not everybody has to agree with him. But the question is why were the media giving him so much publicity?

TM: Well we discussed this issue earlier and you are adamant that certain sections of the press in this country are keen on promoting Islamophobia. Anyway do you feel the odds are stacked against you in this case?

MA: Yes, very much so. It is like fighting a case with your hands tied behind your back.

TM: You keep saying this is test case, a watershed. You also said earlier that there is a queue of people who the government wants to strip of their nationality; is there also a queue of people who are likely to face extradition proceedings to the U.S.?

MA: Well, we know that there is a dangerous trend that could emerge as a result of the 2003 Extradition Act. David Bunkett keeps saying that this legislation and the 2002 Immigration Act are only targeted at Sheikh Abu Hamza but we know that they are probably designed to target the Muslim community. There is also the dangerous precedent where men who can not be charged in this country are sent to America. We have Sheikh Abu Hamza and we also have Babar Ahmad (who I also represent) who is also awaiting extradition to America.

TM: If Sheikh Abu Hamza is sent to America, is put on trial there and is eventually convicted, can he expect to spend the rest of his life in prison?

MA: Yes.

TM: Ok, let us discuss broader issues. We have discussed the latest counter-terrorism legislation and it is clear that you find it unfair and oppressive. Let us just presume that there is a terror attack on the UK in the near future, what kind of legal reaction can we expect then?

MA: I dread to think what would happen. I think it is likely there would be a lot of attacks against Muslims and Muslim businesses will be targeted.

TM: Do you ever envisage a situation where the authorities might be tempted to introduce internment similar to the kind of security measure they adopted in Northern Ireland during the height of the troubles?

MA: Yes I think that is a distinct possibility.

TM: What is the best way of preventing a terrorist attack on the UK?

MA: I think instead of alienating the Muslim community the government needs to initiate greater cooperation with the Muslim community. One thing that some people find admirable about Sheikh Abu Hamza—irrespective of what many people say abut him—is that he said a lot of unpopular things. But the point is that these things must be said because sometimes they reflect the truth; and if not they can be rationally discussed and exposed in a public forum. Developing a culture of secrecy only exacerbates everyone’s fears and divides Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

TM: Do you think the terror threat to the UK is hyped?

MA: I think it is being deliberately hyped.

TM: But surely you don’t dispute the fact that there are people out there who want to harm the west?

MA: But why should that be the case? Shouldn’t we be concerning ourselves with the causes of this terrible situation where people want to harm others instead of just prescribing security measures?

TM: Do you fear being targeted by the authorities because of the work that you do?

MA: I fear that my situation is not going to improve. I believe there are going to be more arrests taking place and the plight of the Muslims will deteriorate further. And I fear that what happened to some of the Irish lawyers might happen to me.

TM: Which Irish lawyers are you talking about—are you referring to Pat Finucane who was shot to death by loyalist gunmen allegedly in collusion with British intelligence in February 1989?

MA: Yes.

TM: You are that fearful?

MA: I think there may come a time when they say we have had enough of this woman and maybe go down that road. Recently I have been constantly undermined by police and prison officers particularly at the notorious Paddington Green Police station where most terror suspects are initially held. It got so bad that I had to file a personal complaint.

TM: Do you also fear more conventional pressure, like the Law Society moving against your firm?

MA: It is interesting that you mention that because attempts have already been made to close down my firm. The Legal Services Commission has tried to take away my legal aid contract.

TM: Why would they want to do that?

MA: When the Sheikh Abu Hamza case came up my contract manager rang me up and said don’t even bother applying for legal aid for this one because you are not going to get it.

TM: How serious are these threats against your firm?

MA: When the articles against me were coming out they were trying to whip up public support for closing down my firm and barring me from practicing law in this country. Moreover I am subject to inspections which I don’t think other firms are subject to.

TM: You mean inspections by the regulatory authorities?

MA: Yes, I recently had a monitoring visit by the Law society. And of course the legal Services Commission has tried to withdraw my funding contract.

TM: Is your plight attracting a lot of support from the Muslim community?

MA: A lot of Muslims are openly supportive of me and my firm but equally a lot of Muslims are frightened to express support openly. The mood has shifted decisively in this country in recent years and I am afraid things will get worse in the years to come.