Detained at the airport ‘for no other reason than I’m a Muslim returning from the Hajj’
By Nawaz Malik
On November 23 I returned on a Gulf Air flight from Jeddah to Heathrow, via Bahrain. I had been on a two-week deluxe Hajj package trip with my elderly mother when I was taken aside by border control at Terminal 4. Both my elderly mother and I were very tired and ill after both an arduous hajj and a delayed flight and were desperately looking forward to getting home for a shower and some rest.
An Asian counter terrorism SO15 (Special Branch) Officer separated us from each other and took me to a side room, leaving my mother with a female officer. He told me I had been flagged because I have two passports – which he (bizzarly) claimed was illegal. I explained that I had only decided to obtain a second passport because my first one had an Israeli stamp on it – which would have prevented me from obtaining a Hajj visa. The passport agency had confirmed that I was entitled to apply for a second passport and subsequently issued it.
The Special Branch Officer handed me two documents and explained that I was being detained under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. He also made it clear that he had no previous intelligence on me or specific questions he wished to ask me, and that the only reason that I had been flagged up was that I had two British passports. I replied that having two passports is hardly uncommon and certainly not illegal. At any rate, now that I had provided an explanation, and it was clear there was no intelligence- led terrorism evidence against me, nor any suspicion of terrorism – why was anti-terrorism legislation being used to detain me?
He said that this was the only piece of legislation that allowed him to detain me. I told him that this was an outrageous abuse of power and a disgraceful way in which to treat a sickly individual returning from a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage with his sick, elderly mother. I likened my detention to that of the infamous holocaust-survivor Walter Wolfgang being arrested under anti-terrorist legislation for merely heckling Jack Straw at a conference in 2005. He handed me a leaflet and piece of paper with a summary of what he was entitled to carry out under the Terrorism Act.
I asked that my mother be informed and that she be told to arrange for a solicitor. The officer then said that he was not obliged to wait for the arrival of my solicitor and began to conduct his “examination” interview. I confirmed my name, date of birth, address and other basic information but I refused to answer what religion I was. Shortly after, he asked if I consented to my DNA and fingerprints being taken. I did not, and resisted his attempts to convince me to provide consent. He then said he would take me to a police station where an officer would, de rigour, provide him with the necessary power.
I was marched through the terminal by three officers in plain view of all of my fellow Hajj group members, humiliated with all staring at me as if I was a common criminal and put into the back of a police van. During the journey, I felt sickly due to the cold van as well as lack of sleep and food. I had never seen the interior of a police van before in my life.
The Special Branch Officer drove the police van to the nearby Heathrow police station and when letting me out referred to me as a ‘prisoner’. My solicitor called at that moment and provided basic legal advice in which he stated that I was legally bound to answer their questions but that I should not answer questions to do with my faith or beliefs. Rather disturbingly, my solicitor added that this use of Schedule 7 was becoming a regular occurrence at Heathrow and that police were using it to search for anything and everything. The police officer granted authority to the Special Branch Officer to obtain my DNA, fingerprints and photographs. Comprehensive fingerprints were taken from both hands and mouth swaps for DNA.
Then I was taken to an interview room with him and the other female officer from Terminal 4 where both of my luggage bags were examined. I felt humiliated that all my details were exposed there in front of the two officers – my mobile phone, my Saudi and UK sims, all my private text messages, my contacts, my credit cards, bank details, my underwear and clothes, my work pass. They turned my copy of the Qur’an upside-down, flicking through it for a period of time to see if it contained anything. I felt like a lowly criminal.
The two officers then conducted a taped interview in which they asked about me, my address, work, pay, bank account, credit cards, how I found the Hajj tour operator, if I knew anyone else on the tour, where I had travelled in the world, why I travelled to Israel, a day-by-day account of my movements in Saudi, if I knew anyone else in Saudi, if I had visited Africa, North America, the Middle East, the Far East, Europe… they asked such detailed and comprehensive questions.
They took copies of all my paperwork, credit cards, bank cards, and kept my phone and sim cards. When they had the results back from their various checks, I was then marched to the
front of the station feeling extremely cold with no coat or jumper, hungry and tired and was told that a bus ran from the front of the station. I was not going to be taken back to
Heathrow airport where I was originally detained and from where the trains ran. I requested that at the very least I might be afforded the courtesy to be returned to the point of detention, ie Terminal 4 where I could catch a train home – to which Officer Razzak glibly retorted that technically we were still in the airport. So I left in the freezing weather with my luggage and waited for a bus.
I continue to feel utterly humiliated and violated, and that all my privacy and dignity as a human being has been stripped – my personal text messages, my clothes, my finances, my contacts, my bank accounts, my DNA, my fingerprints and pictures were all taken…for what, when I have never been arrested before in my life, never committed a crime and there was not even any suspicion of terrorism on me?
I would like to ask the Government that if the Muslim community itself is key to defeating the scourge of terrorism, as is so often claimed, why do the security services (and politicians who empower the former with draconian legislation) think that by treating innocent Muslims like this, they will endear the community to the security services? When the hundred or so members of my family and social circle ask me about my Hajj – what will I tell them? That the country of my birth and citizenship detains me under anti-terror legislation for no other reason than I’m a Muslim returning from the Hajj? That in effect, if you’re a UK citizen and happen to be of the Muslim faith then you run the very real risk of being detained and “examined” for quite literally no reason and no suspicion?
Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 is an extremely harmful and counterproductive piece of legislation both from a human-rights standpoint and also from a community-cohesion
point of view. It is alienating innocent Muslims in their droves, leading to very widespread feeling of victimisation and actually propelling people towards an isolationist point of view.
The Met Police were not available for comment.