British Human Rights Activist Faces Prison For Refusing To Hand Over Passwords At UK Border
from the digital-strip-search dept
As Techdirt readers will recall, in 2013 David Miranda was held by the UK authorities when he flew into Heathrow airport, and all of his electronic equipment was seized, in an act of blatant intimidation. His detention was under Schedule 7 of the UK’s Terrorism Act, which, as its name implies, is supposed to be used only if someone is involved in committing, preparing or instigating “acts of terrorism.”
That was clearly ridiculous in Miranda’s case, and it’s just as outrageous in the latest example of UK border bullying, this time against Muhammad Rabbani. He’s a British citizen, and the international director of Cage, which describes itself as “an independent advocacy organisation working to empower communities impacted by the War on Terror.” The Guardian fills in the background:
Rabbani, 35, from London, is involved through Cage in investigating torture cases. He said he was stopped at Heathrow in November returning from one of the Gulf states where he had been investigating a torture case allegedly involving the US.
He said he handed over his laptop and mobile phone but refused to provide his passwords. Although not a lawyer, he said the laptop contained information about the case and the client refused permission to release it. Rabbani was then arrested.
Using this power, [UK] officers can compel a person to surrender their passwords without cause and there’s also no right to remain silent. There is nothing like this anywhere in the Western world.
Rather than dropping the case, this week the UK authorities have formally charged Rabbani under the Terrorism Act. He told the Guardian that he intends to fight, because the move has “serious implications” for journalists, lawyers and human rights, even though he faces three months in jail if he loses. This may be the first time Rabbani’s been charged, but he is certainly no stranger to being stopped by the UK border officials:
Rabbani said he had been detained 20 times over the last decade by border officials and had handed over his laptop and mobile phone. On previous occasions, after refusing to hand over passwords, they were returned to him and he was allowed to go. But not on this occasion.
He’s not alone in being subjected to this kind of harassment by the UK authorities. Figures published in an article on the Middle East Eye site reveal just how ineffective Schedule 7 examinations are at spotting terrorists:
More than 28,000 people were subjected to Schedule 7 examinations in 2015-16 resulting in about 10,000 intelligence reports being filed, according to a report by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation.
About 500,000 are also estimated to have been subjected to pre-examination screening questions in the same period.
According to 2016 statistics, only 0.02 percent of stops lead to an arrest. An even smaller number lead to criminal charges.
The good news is that the UK court of appeal has already criticized Schedule 7 for forcing people to betray confidences and thus make it unlikely that others would trust them again with information in the public interest. That holds out the hope that Rabbani will ultimately win in the courts, since his case is very similar. The bad news, of course, is that the US is thinking of demanding passwords from every foreigner who visits the US.