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-Qaeda 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 US approach to al-Qaeda in Iraq, said Rod Thornton, his supervisor and a terrorism researcher and a former British soldier. Sabir’s supporters say he downloaded and sent the al-Qaeda 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 on Saturday that the manual — freely available on the US Department of Justice Web site — 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, a 30-year-old former PhD student at Nottingham, faces deportation for what lawmaker 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 to Liam Byrne, Britain’s borders and immigration minister.
Nottinghamshire Police declined to speak about the arrests, but in a statement carried in newspapers, including the Muslim News and the Times Higher Education Supplement, they argued their actions were justified.
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 respond to messages seeking comment on Sunday.
Sabir and Yezza’s supporters plan a free-speech demonstration tomorrow during which staff will read excerpts from the manual in front of the university library, said 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.