My arrest – it could happen to you*
By Laura Stuart
My arrest took place on the 5th November 2015, an auspicious day better known as “Bonfire Night” in Britain. Guy Fawkes is famously known as “the only man to enter the Houses of Parliament with the correct intention”. He was a convert to Catholicism, a man who went to fight in Spain against the Protestants and who later became involved in the Gunpowder plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Guy Fawkes was caught, tortured and sentenced to death.
The fact that hundreds of years later children still celebrate foiling the ‘Gunpowder Plot’ by burning effigies of Guy Fawkes on a bonfire proves how we are conditioned from childhood to dehumanise enemies of the Government.
At 6 a.m. on that day, as I lay in bed, I heard the banging of feet and shouting in the corridor outside of the flat I live in, it was all very frantic and slightly surreal. I did not understand what was happening immediately so my neighbour was the first to run out and see what all the fuss was about. “WE WANT LAURA STUART” I heard and went to open the door. Imagine my shock as police in uniform and stab vests started pouring into my home.
My memory of what happened next is very jumbled. As a person who had never been arrested previously and who had minimal contact with the police during my lifetime, the whole event was very confusing. I did confirm my name as I was informed that I was being arrested but had I known my rights I would have known that nothing more was required of me by law, but then we all think we will never be in such a situation.
The police asked me to show them where my mobile phones and laptop were, they also asked me for the passwords to access them and if anyone else had used them. They informed me that they would ask me those questions and that my replies would be transcribed word for word by a police officer and at the end of this they would ask me to sign a form and put my initials against my spoken replies to confirm they were accurate. I later discovered that it would have been better for me not to have done any of that and I would encourage all Muslims or all people involved in political activism to familiarise themselves with these procedures.
I had to stand in the centre of the room and was not allowed to touch any of my belongings and if I forgot this and moved the police got twitchy. Next I was told I would be taken to Southwark Police Station.
Because I was not resisting I was allowed to walk out to the police car without being handcuffed with two female officers and a male officer walking beside me. Forget anonymity and especially forget dignity as your neighbours witness you going to the car.
It took quite a long time to reach Southwark Police Station in the morning traffic, during which the female officer sitting beside me made friendly and seemingly innocent conversation with me. I think as I was in a state of shock I preferred to chat, something I should have been more wary of as there is no such thing as innocent conversation and the police weigh every word. A passing comment I made about the perils of exposing teenage shenanigans on social media was later related back to me during my interview as the officer had reported it as noteworthy that I never put family photographs on Facebook but rather used it only for political purposes.
Southwark Police Station is specially designed for terror suspects, basically a fortress. Arrival has to be radioed ahead, the car drives in through a massive gate and into a yard, then from the yard into a garage where the doors are sealed and you wait until the gate opens for you to walk into a short alley that takes you to the building entrance where you are held in-between two sets of locked doors. The security is impressive. Many doors lie between you and the huge double door of your cell. Panic alarm strips run around every wall.
I was astounded at the sheer number of officers sent to arrest me (about 12 – 15) and the number of personnel involved in manning the Police station during my long day there.
The cell has nothing but a duvet and pillow on a ledge and a metal toilet and washbasin. Breakfast was not served but I managed to get a cup of tea in a plastic cup given to me through the observation hatch.
I was asked if I wanted to make a phone call, as is my right. Unfortunately, in this day and age we use mobiles to store phone numbers and I was unable to remember anyone’s number off by heart. This is something I would advise everyone to do, after my experience. Learn one number of someone you would wish to call if you were detained. I was asked if I wanted a lawyer of choice or to use the duty lawyer, I remarked that since I was now an actual terror suspect that I would have the very best and, by a stroke of luck. I could remember the name Gareth Peirce. Ironically, this was due to me having written a reference for a friend who had been arrested previously and who was represented by Gareth Peirce, to whom I had sent my reference. That reference was subsequently disregarded because, by the time that person’s case was brought forward in court, I was myself on bail and, therefore, hardly a credible witness. Perhaps that may have been one reason why I was arrested – who knows?
Every time they enter your cell you hear one set of locks and then another in the absolutely, massively, secure door. They, no doubt, have a protocol of how many officers have to come each time your door is opened in case you get aggressive. Every process is explained to you as if your permission is required or as if you have a choice. Being taken for photographs was next on the program. The police photographer started and photographs were taken at every point on the clock in a 360-degree circle, head, head and shoulders then full length. It takes ages but seemed harmless enough at first. But then I was told they would photograph me without my hijāb on. I disputed their right to do this and an officer was sent off to ascertain whether or not they could indeed do that as I was protesting that my passport and driving license were adequate as identification even with a hijāb on in those pictures. Eventually the officer came back saying they definitely had the authority to take photos of me without hijāb. The same process again, photos at all points of the clock in a full circle. I would like to know if the police really have the right to do this and if the law allows them to retain the photographs even after ‘no further action’ is the result.
During the day I was also taken to their doctor and asked if I was on any medication, liable to self-harm, was suicidal and other such questions. I was able to establish that there were only two detainees in the Police station that day and the other was a young lady of just 16 years of age. Shocking! What kind of impact would this experience have on such a young mind?
Every process takes a long time but the very detailed fingerprints that involved a police officer and a fingerprint expert taking a multitude of prints took longer than an hour. A swab was also taken from the inside of my mouth for D.N.A.. During that long process my lawyer arrived and had to wait, something I was assured by police that lawyers were used to doing.
My lawyer asked me what had happened so far and discussed with me the coming interview. I can honestly say that it is best at such a time to only confirm your name and respond to everything else with “no comment”. My lawyer asked me what I thought I had done and I really hadn’t a clue. We went into the interview room.
The interview room has two police officers, a camera, microphone and a T.V. screen that only the police officers can see. I was advised that other officers would be outside of the room observing. So, with some trepidation, and after hours of due process I braced myself to find out what on earth I had done to get arrested. Hours of questions over two interviews later I can only say that I was none the wiser. The questions went on and on, round and round and nothing made sense. My lawyer informed them that I would be giving a no comment interview so I suppose they knew already that all I would say was “no comment” – a phrase that became incredibly tedious and boring, as were the questions. If you have watched detective programs on television or read detective novels you may have the impression that the police have clever tactics to draw suspects out and once they have the suspect on the hook they skewer them with clever twists and turns of phrase. Real life is somewhat different; the police did not seem to have anything to offer except tedium.
Utterly exhausted and totally numb, I was still no wiser as to how I had become a terror suspect, although it was mentioned that I had shared a YouTube video by Anwar al Awlaki, in particular “The Dust Will Never Settle”, and I was asked if I agreed with his views. Since it is a talk widely available on the internet without any warning that it may be illegal to watch or share it, I had at some time no doubt done so, but I could not remember specifics. Again, “no comment” ensures that you cannot be drawn into a conversation where you may possibly say something that the police find incriminating yet you find completely normal.
After two sessions where my only reply was “no comment” I was told to wait with my lawyer. I had had nothing to eat all day and was tired. Finally, an officer came to inform my lawyer and myself that the Crown Prosecution Service had decided to allow me to leave but on bail and with conditions. These conditions included them keeping my passport, having to sleep only at my own address, being under curfew between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. and having no contact with the person that I had given a reference for, a condition that was, in itself, rather revealing although the person’s name had not been mentioned during interviews. Had I been swept up as part of a fishing expedition for information about that person’s friends and contacts? The accusation on the bail form was that I shared media that could promote terrorism.
I was taken home by two officers. I was hugely relieved to have been able to escape the horrors of the cell but my lawyer warned me not to converse openly in the car and that every conversation could be used as evidence. The atmosphere in the car was more relaxed and the male officer, no doubt bored with his job as a mere chauffeur, decided to practice his training of how to spot a terrorist on me. He asked me who lived behind ‘that big wall’. I had no idea and said so. He told me it was Her Majesty the Queen (ahaa ahaa). Would a “real terrorist” say something like “the flag of Islām will fly from the roof of Buckingham Palace one day”? I secretly admired his ingenuity and replied that I felt the Queen had been a very good Monarch, a view that I actually do hold. The next innocent question was “So, excuse my ignorance, but what do Muslims do on Christmas Day?”
The police officer gravely advised me that if today led to nothing else it would perhaps serve to make me consider what it might be that I was doing that “they” did not like. Adding to the strangeness of my situation, the news came on. It was of a case in the Borders where police had held an identity parade of sheep stolen by rustlers so that they may be identified and reunited with their owners. I was greatly amused and asked the police officers if they were glad to be involved in the glamorous work of dealing with terrorists rather than sheep rustlers, but they did not seem to appreciate my sarcasm.
I found that my home had been minutely searched and everything replaced incredibly tidily. My phones, chargers, laptop, camera were missing and I therefore could not make any calls. I was not provided with a list of what was taken by the police so, for many days after, I would search for something and discover it had gone, including missing notebooks with my handwritten notes for my Tajwīd course, and just before an exam too. I do hope they had fun translating my wobbly Arabic.
I did not want to tell my family or friends about what had happened to me. Other friends had told me that when they had been arrested their friends, neighbours and even family reacted with fear. You find yourself alone once police are involved. I find that incredibly sad but, although I was sure that many of my friends were better than that, I decided it was probably best not to have to go through telling the story and explaining or justifying myself to people, so I kept it all inside. I did call C.A.G.E. so that my case could be logged and I believe this is very important, so that we can know the scale of arrests and particularly the numbers of those arrests that lead to no further action. I was grateful to be assigned a wonderful Sister from H.H.U.G.S. who was always available to offer me help and support. These two organisations are essential and deserve our support with donations, they have so much experience dealing with people accused of terrorism and really are almost the only people you can turn to or talk to in this situation. The one friend that I did confide in actually said she wished that I had not told her about it, as she found it so horrifying and worrying.
My first bail date in mid-December 2015 drew close but the day before I was informed that I was not required to present at Southwark as no decision had been made. A new date in mid-February 2016 was set. A phone call by my lawyer a few days before the second date led to us being told that all the evidence was now with the C.P.S. I felt this was ominous but my caseworker at C.A.G.E. hoped that if there had been something concrete to prosecute me over they would have had time to do so by now.
Eventually the call from my lawyer came and, to be honest, by that stage I had reconciled myself to the possibility that if the establishment really wanted me detained that they would find some way to do so by any means. However, with huge relief I learned that there was to be no further action (N.F.A.) and that it was all over. All over apart from getting my property back, something that is not as easy as one might imagine.
You may wonder why I have written about this in such minute detail. I want people to read this and understand that many, many, Muslims, and even non Muslims, are being arrested under the terrorism act and a huge number lead to N.F.A.. Recently, fellow activists have been arrested for things as diverse as flying a Hizbollah flag to alleged anti-Semitism. The stress of those months on bail was huge, it disrupted my life. I was unable to travel, unable to be out late, unable to sleep at a friend’s home. The feeling of uncertainty was huge. The feelings ranged from the initial shock followed by relief to be out on bail, then anger and resentment at the experience I was put through, irritation that my neighbours were wondering what on earth I had done, the inconvenience of not having my notes that I needed for an exam and the huge frustration and anxiety over not knowing where on earth this could lead. Bear in mind, the evidence against me was so vague. It is human nature to fret over such a situation and I frequently reflected on how such an experience would disturb a young teen or young adult. If I was younger and more volatile, how might I have responded to the stress of the situation? Research definitely needs to be done into the impact of arrests on people and if there is a connection between arrests, feelings of being harassed and alleged suspects taking steps that end in extreme acts.
My other reason for writing this account is to help others understand what so many people are going through, particularly in our Muslim community. Anyone who is arrested should feel able to speak out about their experience without fear of prejudice so that information can be gathered on the scale of arrests, especially so that the harm they cause to the individual, family and community can be studied. I would encourage others to talk openly about their experience. Do not fear being isolated by friends and the community. Rather, speak out so that everyone can see this has become the new norm. I also wish that others may be alerted to such things as “no comment” being the best reply to all questions. It is really horrible to go through, but the more of us who come forward and share our experiences the more we can push back against the excessive arresting of people on what are very flimsy charges. It is time to come forward without fear of stigmatisation and we must not let this “war of terror” on our Muslim community continue undercover.