When even actors aren't safe
Rizwan Ahmed was part of a prizewinning team at the Berlin Film Festival. When he got back to Luton
When Michael Winterbottom's Road to Guantanamo won a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival on 19 February, Rizwan Ahmed, one of the stars of the movie, was there. "It was an emotional experience," he told me later. "The film had an amazing reception and on some levels it felt like the Tipton boys had been vindicated."
The Tipton boys, better known as the Tipton Three, are Asif Iqbal, Ruhal Ahmed and Shafiq Rasul, who spent two years in Guantanamo Bay before being released without charge. The film traces their story from their initial trip to Pakistan for Asif's wedding, through Afghanistan and on to the US prison camp. Rizwan - Riz for short - played the part of Shafiq Rasul.
His delight was short-lived, ending abruptly when, with Shafiq and Ruhal, he got back to Luton Airport. "Shafiq was stopped at the immigration desk," Riz said. "Soon after, I was detained and questioned by the Special Branch. A female officer questioned me extensively by the baggage claim, taking notes. When I asked what all these questions were for, she took me to a small room."
The officer told Riz she had no reason to doubt his account of the Berlin trip. "She said they need to stop us and the Tipton boys, as anyone with 'terror links' must be questioned - not, she said, that I necessarily had any. I told her that the Tipton Three didn't either, as has been widely documented. She then asked to go through the contents of my wallet. I felt uncomfortable about this and asked to speak to a lawyer."
At this point things got adversarial. The officer told Riz that he had no right to legal advice. She gave him a blank copy of what was styled a "Section 7 of the Terrorism Act Detention Form". The form stated that a superintendent could order up to 48 hours of detention without contact with anyone, even a lawyer. Riz is no fool: he asked whether she was a superintendent. She retreated: he was not in fact being held under this form and would be denied legal advice only for the first hour of questioning.
The officer then left the room. Riz took the opportunity to call a friend on his mobile phone, and the friend called me. When she returned, Riz, under threat of "continued detention", allowed her to go through his wallet. She recorded the details of his bank card and some business cards he had been given. As she did so she asked Riz whether he intended to act in any more films. "Did you become an actor mainly to do films like this, you know, to publicise the struggles of Muslims?" she inquired. She also quizzed him about his political views, what he thought about "the Iraq war and everything else that was going on". "She then asked me whether I would mind officers contacting me regularly in the future, 'in case, for example, you might be in a cafe, and you overhear someone discussing illegal activities'."
At this point I reached Riz on his phone. I told him to inform the officer that a solicitor from Gareth Peirce's office would call in a few moments. The officer said this would not be permitted. She raised her voice and called in a male colleague, who ordered Riz to give up the phone. Riz refused and the man wrestled it from him, then sat on a table, smirked, and went through the numbers in the memory.
Another officer came in, and the three of them threatened to take Riz to a police station. The officer with Riz's phone called him a "fucker". Riz objected. The officer smiled at him and said: "Now you're making things up. No one called you that."
Riz argued that if he had no legal right to a lawyer, then a lawyer would advise him of that fact. He insisted on calling Gareth Peirce's office and the female officer eventually conceded this, on condition that if he tried to ask any further questions the phone would be taken away. The bluff was called and as soon as Riz got through, the officer said: "We're done with you. You can go." She then said that Riz was prolonging his own detention by insisting on talking with lawyers.
He was keen to leave but first asked for any notes from the interview and for the names of the officers. He was refused both, but they handed him a pink search record sheet, specifying that the purpose of the search was "intelligence". The reverse of the sheet - which bore the words "officers must also complete" - was blank.
When I spoke with Riz again later that day, he was shaken. "It was humiliating, intimidating," he said, yet he was concerned about going public. He is not just an actor, but an Asian actor. "I'm nobody of note, but being tagged as some kind of political activist could make it hard to get work."
Riz urged me to write about the incident instead, if I thought that it might help others. So I am. Six months ago I saw my former home town New Orleans washed away, because the levee that was supposed to protect it had not been maintained. In a similar way, political opportunism is undermining the levee of legal rights in this country, and to stay silent is to court another disaster.
The very foundations of our justice system are under threat as legal safeguards and even the notion of the protection of the law are ignored or mocked. Take another, related, instance of this: Britain has long barred the use of torture evidence, yet in 2005 the government sought its admission in court. And though the House of Lords has said no, the government continues on its course. I am thinking of my client Jamal Kiyemba, who lived in Britain from the age of 14, but when he was released recently from Guantanamo Bay was not allowed home. Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, insisted instead that Jamal go to Uganda, where he was born 26 years ago.
Charles Clarke barred Jamal from Britain on "grounds of national security". The government says it can designate someone an "international terrorist" when the Home Secretary "suspects" that the person "has links with a person who is a member of, or belongs to, an international terrorist group". The basis for "suspicion" of Jamal was almost certainly evidence coerced out of him and others in Guantanamo Bay. Does Clarke care? Apparently not.
On 15 February the government pushed through the Commons its latest terrorism bill, which holds that you will be a criminal if you "glorify" acts of terrorism. While I believe Rizwan Ahmed's detention at Luton was patently illegal when it happened, it may not be so after this law reaches the statute books. Riz is an actor who, by portraying one of the Tipton Three, helped put their side of the story. Does that lay him open to a charge of "glorifying" them? They have never been charged with any crime, but who knows what the Home Secretary might "suspect" about them?
We cannot afford to be silent. Rizwan Ahmed's experience at Luton Airport proves that these are dangerous times - even for an actor.
Clive Stafford Smith is legal director of the charity Reprieve and has represented 40 Guantanamo prisoners. See www.reprieve.org.uk. The Road to Guantanamo will be shown on Channel 4 on 9 March