Airport Police Demanded a [Non-White] Activist's Passwords. He Refused. Now He Faces Prison in the UK

From [HERE] IT WAS NOT the first time Muhammad Rabbani had problems when returning to the United Kingdom from travels overseas. But on this occasion something was different — he was arrested, handcuffed, and hauled through London’s largest airport, then put into the back of a waiting police van.

Rabbani is the 36-year-old international director of Cage, a British group that was founded in 2003 to raise awareness about the plight of prisoners held at the U.S. government’s Guantánamo Bay detention site. Today, the organization has a broader focus and says it is working to highlight “the erosion of the rule of law in the context of the war on terror.” Due to its work campaigning for the legal rights of terrorism suspects, Cage has attracted controversy, and Rabbani has faced the government’s wrath.

His trouble at Heathrow Airport in late November began with a familiar routine. Often, on his return to the U.K. from foreign trips, he was stopped by police and questioned under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act — a sweeping power British authorities can use at the border to interrogate and search people without requiring any suspicion of wrongdoing. People questioned under Schedule 7 have no right to remain silent, and they can be interrogated for up to six hours. Rabbani estimates that he has been stopped under Schedule 7 about 20 times. Usually, he was let free after a few questions without any charges or arrest. But not this time.

Rabbani was returning to London after a business trip to one of the Gulf states. He had been meeting with an individual whom he says was previously detained by U.S. authorities and suffered “years of torture” at the hands of his American captors. The person provided Rabbani with information about his treatment, including names of particular individuals allegedly involved in carrying out the acts of torture. These details, Rabbani says, were provided on a confidential basis and were to be used by Cage as part of a pending legal action against the U.S. government.

As he arrived back at Heathrow, Rabbani was pulled aside by a police counterterrorism officer at the passport control desk. At first, the conversation was polite. But the tone changed when the officer began asking Rabbani about his work for Cage. He requested that Rabbani accompany him to a room inside the airport where he would be subjected to a formal “examination” under Schedule 7, which is supposed to be used solely to determine whether a person is directly involved in the “commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.”

In the interrogation room there were two police officers who searched all of Rabbani’s luggage and questioned him further about his travels — Whom did he meet? Where did he go? Where did he stay and for how long? After a while the conversation turned to the electronic devices Rabbani was carrying, which included a silver MacBook Air, a SIM card, a flash drive, and an iPhone. The officers asked Rabbani to turn over his passwords so that they could access the devices — and said that if he did not provide them, they would arrest him.

In August 2013, David Miranda, the partner of Intercept co-founding editor Glenn Greenwald, was detained in the same London airport and similarly interrogated under Schedule 7. Miranda had been assisting Greenwald’s reporting on documents about government surveillance leaked by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. Last year, in a significant victory for privacy rights, a judge in the Miranda case ruled that Schedule 7 was “not subject to adequate safeguards against its arbitrary exercise.” As a result, the British government made changes to a code of practice that outlined how officers should conduct their searches. Officers are now told that they should “cease reviewing, and not copy” information which they have grounds to believe is attorney-client privileged, is journalistic material, or is another kind of information held in confidence, which a person has “acquired or created in the course of any trade, business, profession or other occupation.”

Rabbani was aware of this crucial change and felt that the police were overstepping their recently narrowed authority. “I told them the info on there [my electronic devices] was confidential and sensitive — relating to vulnerable people,” Rabbani told The Intercept. “But they ignored that. They said, ‘No, we have the power to take your devices and to compel you to give your passwords.’”

The situation reached an impasse. Rabbani told the police that he would not turn over the passwords, and he was not going to change his mind. The officers arrested and handcuffed him, then escorted him through the main concourse of the airport into the back of a police van. He was taken to a nearby police station, held in a cell for about nine hours, and later released on bail. [MORE]