By Ahmet Gurhan Kartal
A director of a British-based human rights group has accused Western governments using “more and more intrusive powers” to detain and question people coming to their countries.
Muhammad Rabbani, international director of an NGO called CAGE, was charged with willfully obstructing and seeking to frustrate a search made under anti-terrorism legislation at London’s Heathrow Airport when he was entering the U.K. in November 2016.
Rabbani -- who is currently on bail and faces a court appearance in London on June 20 -- is now warning that thousands of foreign visitors to Britain could face similar treatment.
A civil rights controversy began when Rabbani was charged for refusing to surrender passwords for his computer and cell phone to the authorities.
Set up in 2003, CAGE says its focus is on “raising awareness of the plight of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other detainees held as part of the War on Terror”.
The CAGE director refused to hand over his passwords, claiming he had sensitive and confidential information regarding a torture case on his devices, which were later confiscated before his release on bail.
“There is a growing trend globally of Western governments in particular exercising more and more intrusive powers at borders,” Rabbani told Anadolu Agency this week.
“Summer holidays are coming; there will be visitors coming to the U.K. Those visitors are potentially at risk of having their rights taken from them,” he warned.
“As CAGE, we have a number of cases that we are working on; some of them are very sensitive… The sensitive case involving U.S. intelligence agencies [are] quite implicated in this case.
“The effect of the confiscation has been interference in that investigation… It is tantamount to the state interfering with the work of an independent NGO that should be left alone to do its work.”
In a separate statement, Rabbani said thousands of other people were similarly questioned by the security forces every year.
“I am not alone in this,” he said. “Around 50,000 people in the UK are stopped each year while traveling. None of them are ever suspected of a crime. In my case, this has happened more than 20 times.”
In a statement, CAGE described the case as a “Rosa Parks moment for Muslims in Britain”.
“Our director has been charged with an offense for refusing to break client confidentiality, a privilege enjoyed by journalists, lawyers and human rights activists but not extended to Rabbani,” it said.
However, despite the legal threat, Rabbani insists it was his right to keep his passwords safe.
“Nobody wants to go to jail. I do not want to go to jail. I am a father of two children," he said.
“I was left in a dilemma when police stopped me at the border. I was left with the two choices. "Either I [would] surrender my passwords, which would have meant breaching the confidentiality of this particular client who is a victim of a torture.
“Or I [would] surrender that information and I would have saved myself from arrest and potential prosecution but… I would have breached the trust of not just this client but many others.
“And I decided that I couldn’t do that.”
Confident that “any sensible judge” will understand his decision, Rabbani said he would like to go to court.
Rabbani argued that, under the current law, any person can be detained, their DNA and fingerprints can be collected and then sent to police databases.
“All of this is without suspicion,” he said, referring to the usual requirement for police to have a suspicion of someone committing a crime before they are stopped.
“I think it is a very, very intrusive power and it does not fit the safeguards of the due process norms. That’s the fundamental problem,” he added.
Human rights watchdog Liberty has described Schedule 7 of the U.K.’s Terrorism Act 2000 -- the particular piece of legislation used to stop Rabbani -- as a “breathtakingly broad and intrusive power”.
Under the current law, any individual entering the U.K. can be detained and questioned and their DNA and fingerprints can be collected.
Their passwords can be demanded to access personal devices by police without the need for “reasonable suspicion”.
“My entire case is about passwords,” Rabbani said. “I think what the courts will probably determine is that the passwords are almost like a key to the front door of your house or office.”
The CAGE director said when a person is forced to handover their password, it is as though their entire private life was being violated.
“If they don’t respect that privacy, it is going to be very bad for civil liberties overall,” he added.