Response to University Communications About Recent Events

As concerned academics at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham among the many individuals who have been involved in the campaign for academic freedom and the release of Hicham Yezza in the wake of the false terror arrests at our university last week, we feel it necessary to comment on our concerns arising from the recent statement made by the university on its intranet portal (27/28 May 2008).

We want first of all to emphasize once again that the Al Qaeda training manual is an open source document in the public domain, available on-line via respectable web sites including official web sites which appear on politics and international relations reading lists. A paperback version of the al Qaeda training manual is available from the on-line bookseller Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/Al-Qaeda-Training-Manual/dp/1414507100

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Al-Qaeda-Training-Manual-1/dp/1414507100

The University has been reluctant to accept that the possession of such material for academic studies or for non-academic interest by members of the public following current affairs is legitimate. Al Qaeda propaganda is researched and studied, for example, at the Institution for Communication Studies at the University of Leeds. The high street bookshop chain Waterstones sells the collected speeches, interviews and statements of Osama Bin Laden. The response of Nottingham University seems to have conflated having a document with holding extremist views and planning to act upon them, which is not what one would expect from an institution of higher learning and research.

The idea that it was not appropriate for a non-academic member of staff to be in possession of the document should be considered in light of the fact that the document was openly available to the general public. The idea of inappropriateness suggests a narrow interpretation of intellectual freedom for those who are not authorised academics and registered students. University managers appear reluctant to concede that a non-academic might legitimately possess open source documents, here a former long-standing student writing regularly for student papers on current affairs and free speech. Citizen journalists and bloggers beware!

Are the police the only appropriate investigating authority to determine whether it is acceptable for sensitive material to be held by a non-academic? The Nottingham response has serious implications here for academia and journalism, and public life more broadly in Britain. The idea has serious implications for the values we hold as a free, open and democratic society. These values encompassing freedom of speech and rational enquiry should not be treated cavalierly. These are the values that terrorists threaten and we should not lose sight of our special public responsibilities as members of a local, national and international academic community to affirm academic and intellectual freedom. If the academic community is weak in defending intellectual freedom and freedom of speech then it makes it harder for theses values to be defended in our society. Ironically Hicham Yezza has been one of the most vocal defenders of free speech on campus.

Moreover, in terms of its duties of care to staff and students, the university’s way of handling this case, including its failure to offer substantial support and counselling for the student and member and staff who were arrested, suggests a cavalier attitude towards their welfare and well-being. An earlier statement by the university reassured us that the university was offering support to the affected individuals. However it is worrying that this public commitment does not appear to have translated into substantial support for the individuals arrested and other closely affected individuals. We encourage the university administration to demonstrate they are providing appropriate levels of support to the affected individuals and put right the inadequate support to date.

The university’s claim that this was a low-level operation does not stand up to scrutiny. The student and member of staff who were arrested were held from Wednesday May 14 until Tuesday, May 20 without charge, in spite of the fact that Rizwaan Sabir’s supervisor and personal tutor both confirmed to the police that the document they had downloaded and printed was legitimate research material on Friday, May 16. The homes of the two men were raided; they had their computers impounded and they have still not been returned (as at the afternoon of Tuesday 27 May); Rizwaan Sabir’s family members were ejected from their home during the police’s search; several colleagues in the School of politics were interviewed for hours by the police. Students had their bags searched by uniformed police before entering the Trent Building the day after the arrests. Again, a low-level investigation would have resolved this matter within hours by doing a simple Google-search for the document in question and contacting the relevant members of staff at the School of Politics and International Relations.

Please could the university clarify the sequence of events, because the university’s statement implies that the student was arrested at the scene, but we understand that the student was not arrested immediately at the scene, but later elsewhere at the university. The individuals were subsequently released without charge, including any charge related to impeding police investigations. The comment that the student who was arrested had tried to impede police investigations seems to be a thinly veiled attempt to slur the name of Rizwaan Sabir, who is held in extremely high regard both by fellow students and staff. We ask the university to retract this comment.

The character of the police operation is a highly troubling aspect of this case. Is possession of the document in question sufficient to justify this scale of operation? This is an important question of public interest. Was there other evidence to justify this scale of operation? The police were informed by the student’s personal tutor and supervisor that the document in question was legitimate research material two days after the arrest. Was there other evidence following the statements from the personal tutor and supervisor to justify the continuing detention of the two? We are concerned that the university is not showing academic leadership on these extremely important questions for the academic community locally, nationally, and internationally, and for the democratic values that we are defending in our efforts to combat terrorist threats.

The detention of the two arrested men for six days without charge only testifies to an overreaction from police authorities in this matter.

In terms of the comments on the immigration status and employment eligibility status of Hicham Yezza, it is disappointing that the university appears to have disregarded an esteemed member of staff and former long-standing student and appears from the statement to be more concerned over the implications of the status of Hicham’s documentation for the university than for Hicham’s welfare. We hope that the university will refrain from an ungenerous approach towards its own member of staff, without full knowledge of the legal facts, and out of step with the sympathy expressed for Hicham’s plight by many members of the university community and elsewhere.

The university keeps reiterating its commitment to academic freedom, yet this remains unconvincing in practice. Not least the university’s responses appear inadequate and unsupportive towards the individuals affected by the case. Hicham wanted his magazine Ceasefire to be ‘a beacon of intellectual thought’. He has contributed to a vibrant intellectual atmosphere on campus. In light of Hicham’s generous contribution to academic life here and the university’s ungenerous response to him, we can only pose the question to the university that Hicham Yezza asked us in his Spring 2008 editorial: “Do you believe in free speech? Do you believe in open debate?” If the university’s response to this is in the affirmative, it should offer an unconditional apology to Rizwaan Sabir and Hicham Yezza, and publicly guarantee the academic freedom, civil liberties and human rights of its staff and students.

Andreas Bieler

Sara Motta

Alf Nilsen

Vanessa Pupavac

Matthew Rendall

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5 responses to “Response to University Communications About Recent Events

  1. Would it be possible to archive the university’s internal statements publicly somewhere? The internet has a long memory, and I feel they should be held to their words.

  2. I agree with Dominic that it might be a good idea to record the university’s statements about this incident. The university has already changed its view about the ligitimacy of the research material at the centre of the arrests.

  3. I also agree. It could be posted to wikileaks.org.

  4. Just adding my name to this.

  5. Comment number 20 of the following is the only statement I’ve seen on this matter that’s (apparently) from the University:

    http://chronicle.com/news/article/4558/britain-to-deport-scholar-who-downloaded-al-qaeda-guide-at-us-government-web-site

    I think it’s important to try to understand the perspective of those within the University admin who set these events in motion. From their position it seems they think they acted in a fair and reasonable manner, and to have not taken the ‘threat’ this seriously would have been to have been ‘complacent in the face of terrorism’.
    I guess, as soon as behaviours get framed in a particular way, then fairly extreme reactions to them become seen as ‘the only rational course of action’.

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