'This is not the way I should have been treated in a country I love'
Held over al-Qaida manual used for research, Hicham Yezza gives first interview
Polly Curtis and Anthea Lipsett
Saturday May 31, 2008
Nottingham South MP Alan Simpson joins students as they protest against the imminent deportation of Algerian Hicham Yezza on Wednesday. Authorities later relented. Photographer: Rui Vieira
For more than a decade, Nottingham university felt like the safest place in the world for Hicham Yezza as an undergraduate, doctoral student, campus activist and, most recently, employee. But two weeks ago his world caved in when he was arrested under the Terrorism Act.
The 30-year-old Algerian was detained by police for possessing a copy of the al-Qaida training manual that he had been given to print by a friend researching the terrorist group's techniques for his MA.
University officials called in the police after a colleague noticed the document on his computer. Yezza and his friend, 22-year-old student Rizwaan Sabir, were held for six days despite Sabir's tutors giving statements within two days that the document was directly relevant to his research.
They were released without charge, but up until a last-minute reprieve yesterday Yezza had been threatened with deportation on Sunday, charged with a separate immigration offence.
The chain of events has made him a martyr to academic freedom in the eyes of a growing campaign group of lecturers and students, who say that the government's anti-terror agenda is putting pressure on universities to spy on their members to monitor signs of extremism.
Some lecturers now claim that "self-censorship" is rife on campuses.
In his first interview, Yezza, speaking from Colnbrook immigration removal centre near Heathrow, said he had been betrayed by the authorities of a country he loved, respected and felt part of.
"This is not the way I should have been treated. It is hurtful to see myself being treated this way in a country I love, would protect and where I've done everything I can to engage with and be a good citizen."
Yezza came to the UK on a presidential scholarship to study a BSc in computer science and management studies. He went on to do an MA and embarked on a PhD in video compression techniques.
Since last year he had been employed as a personal assistant to the head of the modern languages school at the university. He has been a prominent figure on the Nottingham campus as general secretary of the international students bureau and a founder of the student peace movement.
Yezza said his situation highlighted a growing fear on campuses. "It's a very, very worrying trend that needs to be opposed, this mindset that views everything with extreme suspicion. That installs some sort of 'play it safe' mentality, which is the very opposite of intellectual endeavour.
"No intellectual progress takes place without a sense of curiosity, without a sense of going beyond what we know already, beyond the established facts and notions and truths; that's how scientific and intellectual revolutions have been achieved."
He has sympathy for the university. "Someone could be forgiven, in this current climate, for panicking at this type of document. But I would have appreciated had I been given five minutes simply to answer the questions relevant to the document. Once the procedure was launched it was quickly out of the university's hands."
Alan Simpson, Labour MP for Nottingham South, has accused the police and intelligence services of attempting to cover up their embarrassment over the initial arrest by bringing the immigration charges - which are still subject to court proceedings.
The Home Office yesterday cancelled plans to deport Yezza tomorrow after his lawyers sought a judicial review and representations were made to the home secretary by both the University and College Union and the University of Nottingham.
The university, which refused the Guardian an interview, is under intense scrutiny from its own academics. More than 300 supporters of Yezza campaigned at the university campus this week, some dressed in Guantánamo-style orange suits marked "academic researcher", while others read from the al-Qaida manual to illustrate the fact that it is legal unless being used for illegal purposes.
Yezza's supporters and academics, many of them attending the University and College Union conference in Manchester this week, are now talking of the pressure they face to become "police informers" on their students, part of the government's "preventive agenda" which has seen universities and colleges provided with guidance on how to spot and tackle extremism.
Gavin Reid, a member of the UCU national executive committee from Leeds University, said people were scared to do research and speak out. "Self-censorship is coming," he said. "People are more suspicious of colleagues and students. People are scared even to look at the link [for the training manual in the Nottingham case]."
Catherine Pope, a Southampton university academic who edits a journal, said she had sought legal advice twice on particular articles to "protect the journal and association". "What worries me is this self-censorship and gradual erosion of our academic freedom, and before we know it we will be self-censoring and will not be able to change it."
Alf Nilsen, of Nottingham's school of politics, said: "Hicham was a very prominent member of student political society. That says something about the potential implications of being politically active on campus in a time when a culture of fear merges with draconian terror legislation.
"It's a question of intellectual freedom, not just academic freedom. What does this say about people's right to inform themselves about issues of public concern?"