A British Muslim legal advocate has appealed to the High Court after he was convicted of a terrorism offence for failing to hand over his phone and computer password at London’s Heathrow Airport.
Muhammad Rabbani is now fighting to change a controversial law in the United Kingdom that allows police to carry out ‘digital strip searches’ without any specific suspicion.
Mr Rabbani is the International Director of CAGE, an organisation that fights policies developed as part of the global War on Terror.
He told SBS World News that embarrassing airport interrogations have become a routine part of travel for him and he has lost count of the amount of times he has been stopped at airports – it is in excess of 20 times.
“It’s a difficult ordeal, I mean it’s ever-degrading,” he says.
Mr Rabbani said he had flown home from Qatar in November 2016 when authorities “crossed a red line”.
He alleges police demanded passwords for his phone and laptop, which he claims contained confidential evidence of a survivor of torture.
“These passwords actually give access to all your online personal, professional data. So in my case I was arguing that I must protect the information which is sensitive to one particular case of torture but I think the issue is much broader than that.
“The question is, should there be a power that subjects a person at the borders to a digital strip search?” he said.
He was charged with wilfully obstructing police, who seized his devices under the Schedule 7 law of the UK Terror Act.
During his trial the chief magistrate said she believed Mr Rabbani was of good character and was trying to protect confidential documents, but the court was bound by the law and found him guilty.
He was issued a fine, instead of a three-month jail sentence – a verdict he is appealing.
Under Schedule 7, police have the power to fingerprint, collect DNA evidence and carry out physical and electronic searches for up to six hours, all without any suspicion.
Mr Rabbani said last year 20,000 people were stopped, detained, searched and questioned – but only five people were arrested as a result.
“So clearly the people being stopped are completely innocent of any wrongdoing so it’s completely disproportionate,” he said.
Since 2009, 392921 people have been stopped under Schedule 7, with 88 per cent of the airport passengers stopped from non-white backgrounds.
The High Court will now consider Mr Rabbani’s appeal, a case he hopes will set a precedent for how thousands of travellers are stopped and searched at the British border in future.
Mr Rabbani’s fight for the right to privacy is something he was willing to be jailed for defending.
“All of them are at risk of being violated in the way that I was, and especially, professionals like journalists, doctors, lawyers, psychiatrists – anyone who’s in possession of information that belongs to other people,” he said.
“There are no protections currently as the law stands, so, we’re trying to hopefully change the law.”
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