David Miranda. (Screen grab via)
The UK Terrorism Act of 2000 was a real kick in the dick for fans of civil liberties. As well as giving police stop and search powers that were so arbitrary and invasive they were banned by the European Court of Human Rights in 2010, they birthed Schedule 7, which gives port or border authorities the right to detain anyone they want for up to nine hours and question them about terrorism. An added perk for those authorities: If you don't answer their questions, you could be prosecuted and face three months in jail.
Schedule 7 made the headlines earlier this month when David Miranda – the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has been publishing information leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden – was held at Heathrow airport in an apparent abuse of the legislation. However, while Miranda's case was the first to draw a large amount of press attention, the misuse of Schedule 7 has been going on for a while.
Given the government's preoccupation with Islamic terrorism, it won't shock you to learn that, typically, those detained aren't white. Fifty-six percent of those who've been stopped are from black and minority ethnic communities, a figure that climbs to 77 percent when you take into account those who've been held for more than an hour. Anarchists have also been detained, as have a pair of researchers from Corporate Watch, who've been investigating organisations in Israel that profit from the occupation of Palestine.
Tom Anderson and Therezia Cooper are the pseudonyms of these researchers, who recently drafted a report detailing the five times they've been detained with Schedule 7. I called them up to discuss their experiences.
David Miranda talking to the press about his detention under terror laws.
VICE: So you’ve been stopped under Schedule 7 twice – what was your experience of it?
Therezia Cooper: Well, the first time – in 2011, during the revolution – we were going to Egypt. I was stopped on the way out, but that was very brief. The second time was in January of this year. We were coming back from a research trip in Palestine and I was stopped after going through the border control at the airport by non-uniform officers. They took me to a side room and questioned me. It was very obvious that they have pre-prepared scripts of things they want to ask you – that they wait for you to come off the flight so they can ask you about specific things they know about you.
What sort of thing did they ask you about?
Nothing of what they ask is actually about terrorism. They held me for about an hour and 50 minutes, I think, asking about the research I was doing for Corporate Watch, how Corporate Watch was funded, what kind of research we were doing, what the aim of the research is, what groups we communicate with, who we met while in Palestine, everyone we talked to. Long-term activists say the second misuse of the legislation is as a spying tool on activists, basically.
So this has been happening a lot?
Yes. From the activists' side, I’ve heard of some people getting stopped from coming back from an anarchist conference in Europe.
The one in Switzerland?
That’s right. And there’s been a few other instances of other activists being stopped. Netpol [the Network for Police Monitoring, a watchdog for violent or intimidating policing] has a few other accounts of people being stopped and none of these times have they ever asked about terrorists or anything related to terrorism.
This might sound stupid, but do you have any vague links to any terrorist organisations? Or is there any reason why they would suspect you?
Absolutely not. I mean, if they really wanted to stretch the legislation, they could have asked about certain interviews we’ve done with political prisoners in Palestine – nothing that I would say is terrorist linked at all – but they didn’t ask about that. They were asking about what they perceived to be the hierarchy of activist groups, or where you print your flyers, or what kind of campaigns you’re involved in.
Do you think it was for information gathering or more of an intimidation tactic?
Probably a little bit of both. What they kept saying during the interview was, "We don’t get to talk to you very often, so this is a chance to talk to you." When activists get arrested, people tend to give no-comment interviews, so they can’t use that as a kind of fishing expedition. But at the airport, because of this legislation, you have to answer.
Otherwise they can detain you?
Exactly. You can be arrested and face three months in prison for not answering their questions.
Is that not a breach of your rights?
It’s gone unchallenged for quite a long time. The big issue with Schedule 7 is that it mainly happens to ethnic minorities, so the victims have mainly been members of the Muslim community.
I read a Home Office report on Schedule 7 and even they seem to admit that.
For sure. There are different kinds of misuse of the legislation; with us, they had a profile on us – they already had the information they wanted to know – whereas the Muslim community will just get stopped randomly and profiled a lot more.
Were you surprised by the David Miranda story?
It didn’t surprise me too much – if it happens to us, it was going to happen to someone that high profile.
Do you think journalists and researchers who are covering sensitive issues should be worried?
Not at all. Though I do have a habit of never taking my computer or my real phone through the airport.
Because they’ll get taken from you?
Yeah. When I got detained before, they took my laptop, my phone and my camera for seven days, which is the maximum they can withhold it. They obviously go through everything on them.
And I'm assuming they didn’t find any evidence of terrorist activities on it?
No, they did not, so they had to hand it back. I don’t think people should be worried. I think the important thing for journalists and activists – or anyone getting stopped for other reasons, like ethnic minorities – is to expose the misuse as much as possible, because people generally don’t know about it. Actually, we were doing workshops about this legislation at a press gathering just two weeks ago to try to empower and inform activists of the legislation, because if you don’t know about it or how you can use it, it can be quite an intimidating thing for people to go through. Interestingly, we’ve tried to pitch a story to the Guardian about Schedule 7 twice in the last six months and had nothing back from them whatsoever.
They’d be all over it now.
Yeah, suddenly they seem to be more interested. The hope is that this will draw more attention to Schedule 7. There are already a few things going through with one of the new policing bills that would reduce the time you can be detained to six hours. And you’re supposed to be detained officially after one hour and allowed to have legal advice. I think that’s just going through Parliament, but it's really just tweaks to the legislation, making it a little more bearable.
So nothing that will actually stop it being misused?
Actually, I’m with Tom if you want to speak to him as well?
Sure. Hi Tom, what has your experience of Schedule 7 been?
Tom Anderson: I was stopped on the way back from Palestine on two occasions and I’ve been asked about my political beliefs, my religion, my personal relationships, my family, my job, about all my work with Corporate Watch – including what kind of articles I write. I was also stopped on the way back from France recently for three hours and questioned about whether I planned to be involved in a protest against the G8 this year. On previous occasions I’ve answered some questions and not others – on that occasion I refused to answer most of the questions on the basis that they weren’t being asked in order to investigate terrorism. The police said I could be arrested if I didn’t answer questions. I still refused and eventually they let me go.
So it was just an empty threat?
They were on quite shaky ground on that occasion, and hadn’t encountered people refusing to ask questions. There’s an ongoing case of a Muslim woman who refused to answer questions at an airport.
The case is just over her not answering questions?
Yeah, because it's a crime under Schedule 7 to not answer questions. When people are arrested for criminal charges they have the right to remain silent, so when people are taken into a police station they don’t have to answer questions and they have the right to have any interview with them tape-recorded. With Schedule 7, the police are able to get through the back door to get anyone they want to answer questions on the threat of arrest and prosecution.
The act doesn’t give them the right to ask questions that aren’t related to the investigation of terrorism or the preparation of acts of terrorism, as defined by the Terrorism Act 2000. Their powers are yet to be examined, but whether they have the right to ask the questions they do? I would say they don’t. I would encourage people detained under Schedule 7 to refuse to answer any questions that they don’t think the police have the power to ask.
Okay, thanks to you both.
Follow James on Twitter: @duckytennent
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