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Sunday, November 21, 2004

Innocent Until Proven Muslim

How the books that you read can be used against you in a way similar to the Thought Police in George Orwell's novel, 1984.

Many Muslims who have been arrested under the Terrorism Act, have been charged with possession of materials - materials that are widely available in bookshops, web sites and even your local newsagent.

The law as it stands prohibits possession of material that is likely to be "of benefit to terrorists". So what would you assume that means?

This does not just mean top secret government files that you may have emailed to Osama bin Laden, nor does it just mean owning the tape of a 'firebrand cleric' like Shaikh Faisal, who is currently serving his sentence for incitement of racial hatred - under the terrorism act it can be something as routine as a book on guns.

The current climate and global perceptions of Islam lend themselves to a policy of 'profiling' terrorist suspects. In short, these things that I have mentioned would not be classed as sufficient evidence to convict a non-Muslim, but have to date been enough when it comes to Muslims.

A recent case that I dealt with involved a Muslim, born in Britain, who in his teens was a member of the Territorial Army and had further desires of serving in the British Army. These interests led him to purchase some military books online. These aspirations of serving in the army disappeared over time and his handful books were relegated to a bin bag in the loft to gather dust. Five years later, they were discovered by the police and as a result he was convicted in March 2002 of possession of materials likely to benefit terrorism.

This Muslim is now labelled a terrorist. He will most likely be monitored for the rest of his life - chances of future employment and travel outside the UK seem slim, which would make even Hajj difficult, if not impossible.My client has expressed feelings of being perceived as an outcast within his local Muslim community, let alone the non-Muslims - with many wanting to distance themselves from him for fear of themselves being implicated by association.

The gross miscarriages of justice and manner in which Muslims are being treated in Guantanamo Bay has generally become public knowledge. But now, many are being made aware, through mainstream press and human rights organisations of the Guantanamo on our own shores - Belmarsh Prison. Under what are titled Emergency Powers the British Government is able to detain both men and women indefinitely.

Those detained at Belmarsh receive little or no disclosure as to why they are being locked up. Court hearings take place in secret and they receive no trial for their suspected crime.

The British have honed their skills from their dealings with the IRA. We have seen a number of miscarriages of justices, notably the cases of the Birmingham Six and the McGuire family, which have taken years to come to light and have verdicts overturned. Now the British Government conversely has even more freedom and less restrictions when dealing with such issues today.

The law is purposefully drafted in very broad and loose terms, leading to far reaching consequences. It makes defending any Muslim charged with an offence problematic. Parts of the legislation put the onus on the individual charged with an offence to prove their innocence, as they are assumed guilty. Within current legislation there is also exemption from the European Human Rights.

The question stemming from all of this is where is it all leading? If the current trends continue, it is not inconceivable to think that we will soon be dictated to by the Government, as to where and what are the criteria for payment of Zakat and which verses of the Qur'an must be erased, in order to comply with the laws of this land.

This is not all meant to sound like an episode from Crimewatch, designed to put fear into the Muslim community - quite the reverse. I wish to highlight the farcically vague nature of current legislation in order to show Muslims, that under this premise, I would argue that a picture could be built up or created that would convict any Muslim. By this, I wish to stress that it would not be as a result of any views, property or behaviour any different from an average non-Muslim in this country.

I encourage Muslims to stand up and campaign against these injustices and offer support. Our silence as a community is providing encouragement to the Home Secretary to further erode basic rights.

Recent proposals by the Government to extend terrorism legislation reduce even further the evidence needed for conviction. Judges acting without Juries and with secret intelligence (much of which we now know, thanks to the Hutton affair, is speculation) not accessible to lawyers will almost certainly lead to convictions. Potentially thousands of innocent Muslims could be incarcerated and anyone targeted. It is essential that we learn lessons from the Black and Irish communities in their dealings with the legal system and bringing actions against the State, for such accusations as police brutality and institutional racism. Changes are made through challenging the law, not burning our books.

Tahir Aslam is a partner of H M Aslam & Co. - the Criminal law specialists, with experience in dealing with terrorist cases. 0208 539 8000

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