A director of the controversial advocacy group, Cage, has been found guilty of offences under the Terrorism Act, after refusing to hand over his mobile phone and laptop passwords to the police at Heathrow airport.
By submitting your personal information, you agree that TechTarget and its partners may contact you regarding relevant content, products and special offers.
Muhammad Rabbani, was convicted at Westminster magistrates’ court in London, after a day long trail. The case will have implications for thousands of people stopped at UK airports and ports.
Rabbani, the international director of Cage, which supports victims of torture, was given a conditional discharge and ordered to pay £600 costs and a £20 victim surcharge.
Senior District Judge Emma Arbuthnot said that Rabbani, had taken a “calculated risk” by not handing the passwords over – despite repeated warnings – knowing that on previous occasions officers had taken no further action.
Police right to seize passwords with no suspicion
The trial was a test case for the controversial Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act, which gives police powers to stop people, question them and inspect electronic equipment, at ports and airports even when there is no suspicion of any crime.
Tom Little, prosecuting, conceded that Rabbani had not been stopped randomly or because of a hunch by police in the airport.
The 36 year old campaigner from Bethnal Green in London, was questioned by officers from the Metropolitan Commands Ports Unit at Terminal 4 Heathrow, after returning from a wedding in Doha, Qatar, on 20th November 2016.
Rabbani told the court that he had met a man at the wedding who told the Cage director and lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that he had been tortured with the involvement of US officials.
Rabbani agreed to approach lawyers in the UK on the man’s behalf to bring a legal claim in the UK to run in parallel with a similar legal action in the US.
The man had “issued instructions to Cage to act on his behalf for the torture he had suffered,” he said.
Rabbani said he could not hand over the passwords because he wanted to protect his client. He had confidential notes on his mobile phone and 30,000 confidential documents on his laptop.
“I found an enormous responsibility to discharge the trust given by that client and the lawyers I met the night before I travelled,” he said.
PC Tariq Choudry told the court that Rabbani had refused to give details of his work when stopped apart from disclosing the fact that he was a director of a company. “He kept saying I did not need to know and it would not help me anyway.”
“He said it was against his civil rights to hand over the passwords,” Choudry told the court. Rabbani also raised concerns over the privacy of his information with counter-terrorism police.
Rabbani was arrested and taken to Polar Park Police Station, where he issued the police with a statement after consulting his solicitor, Gareth Pierce.
He told officers that there was nothing unlawful on any of his devices and that he had given his solicitor his password and PIN, with instructions to provide them to the police the following day.
“I have been happy to comply with the procedure genuinely but I know that the contents of my devices affect the privacy and confidentiality of others, including the fact that my work is in large part to do with vulnerable people who have placed their trust in me and my colleagues,” he said.
The court heard that Rabbani’s lawyers were negotiating with police to appoint an independent counsel to assess whether the information on his devices was exempt from disclosure under the codes of practice for Schedule 7 of the Terrorist Act.
But two days after both sides had agreed on an independent counsel to examine the evidence on the computer, Rabbani was charged with wilful obstruction or seeking to frustrate a search under Schedule 7. He appeared at magistrates court on 20th June 2017 where he entered a not guilty plea.
Cage describes itself as “an independent advocacy organisation working to empower communities impacted by the War on Terror.” According to its web site, its work “has focused on supporting survivors of abuse and mistreatment accross the globe.”
Rabbani told the court that he had been stopped between 20 and 30 times at airports by police and members of the Security Service. There were “numerous occasions where MI5 officers approached me,” he said.
Miranda case led to safeguards
The government added safeguards to the code of practice governing how police should conduct searches, in the wake of a landmark legal ruling last year over the arrest of David Miranda, the partner of investigative journalist Glenn Greewald, during a stop-over in London in August 2013.
The safeguards were intended to protect information that is privileged information, journalistic material, or material held in confidence acquired in the course of any trade, business, profession or other occupation.
Henry Blaxland QC, for Rabbani, said there was a strong inference that his detention at Heathrow was not a lawful reason, but for a collatoral purpose, “either because his name was on a list, which is not a proper reason, or there was some interest in the material in his possession, which may well be confidential.”
Blaxland argued that the safeguards were not sufficient to protect information on Rabanni’s electronic devices and that Rabbani’s actions did not amount to wilful obstruction.
Little told the court that the Magistrates Court was not the right place to consider the code of conduct. “My submission is this court is not the proper forum to determine omissions in a code.”
He said that the stop had been lawful, and the attempt to obtain his passwords did not breach Rabbani’s privacy rights under article eight of the European convention of human rights.
Under cross examination, Rabbani was asked why he did not alert the arresting officers to the sensitive content of the material on his computer.
He said that on previous occasions, when he had been stopped he was able to reach an agreement with police officers that disclosing his laptop and mobile phone keys was not necessary.
“Typically I was in examination phase, officers ask for my device. I explained I should not be giving that to you, because it breaches my rights and privacy. The two officers go to someone senior, bring back my devices and I go my way,” he said.
Rabbani said he was concerned that if he mentioned the case he was working on in Doha, he would then be required to answer questions about it, under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act, which gives no right of silence.
“I was acutely aware of my obligation to answer all the questions put to me under Schedule 7. Had I mentioned the client, I would have to answer all the follow up questions, ” he told the court.
He said he had booked the trip to Doha only 8 hours in advance and did not consider leaving his laptop at home, in order to protect the data on his machine. “I was a bit rushed, and if I had more time, I might not take it,” he said.