Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Uni gets tied up in Notts


Criticism for the University of Nottingham was increased when the Politics Department established a “module review committee” that “scrutinises” the “reading lists of lecturers” in case they contain “material that is illegal or could incite violence”.

THREE years after landing itself in a row over two court cases involving a student and an administrator, both of whom had been detained under the 2000 Terrorism Act, because of a book which the student had downloaded, the University of Nottingham is facing criticism again.

In a letter in today's Guardian, a number of academics say they are "deeply concerned by the suspension of Dr Rod Thornton, a lecturer in counter-terrorism in the school of politics and international relations at the University of Nottingham (Report, 4 May). We understand that Dr Thornton's suspension is the result of a whistle-blowing investigative research paper that was presented at the annual British International Studies Association conference and subsequently published on its website. In his research, Dr Thornton carefully details what appear to be examples of serious misconduct from senior university management over the arrest of two university members (The "Nottingham Two") under the Terrorism Act 2000 in May 2008."

It was on May 14, 2008, that administration worker Hicham Yezza was arrested. Hicham had studied for both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at Nottingham, before gaining employment in the School of Modern Languages. He had served as a member of the University Senate, and the Student’s Union Executive Committee and was a co-founder of the Arabic society. In 2003 he founded Ceasefire, an independent magazine whose editor he remains.

Rizwaan Sabir, who grew up in Nottingham, completed his undergraduate degree in politics at Manchester Metropolitan University, then went on to study for a Master's degree in International Relations at Nottingham. The east midlands university has a taught MA course in "International Security and Terrorism".

In 2008 Rizwaan Sabir downloaded a 1,500-page document for his research on militant Islam from the US Justice Department website. The document, known as the Al-Qaeda training manual, is also available in book form from Amazon. Sabir, who was in the process of preparing his forthcoming PhD proposal, sent the document to Yezza, partly because the latter was helping and advising him with his project, and partly to save himself some money on printing.

Apparently a colleague noticed the document on Yezza's computer, and without checking to find out what he was doing with it, the university notified the police.

Yezza was arrested under Section 41 of the Terrorism Act 2000 on suspicion of being involved in the "commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism". When Sabir spoke up to support Yezza, he was arrested under the same charge.

On May 20, Sabir and Yezza were released without charge. Sabir said that after the way he had been treated by the state, he could understand how young Muslims became radicalised, and this would form part of his Ph.D thesis. He has been pursuing this at the University of Strathclyde.

Sir Colin Campbell, then Vice-Chancellor of Nottingham University, seemed to see nothing wrong either in the way the men had been treated or the part the University had played. He stated:

"There is no 'right' to access and research terrorist materials. Those who do so run the risk of being investigated and prosecuted on terrorism charges. Equally, there is no 'prohibition' on accessing terrorist materials for the purpose of research. Those who do so are likely to be able to offer a defence to charges (although they may be held in custody for some time while the matter is investigated."

The Politics Department at the University decided to set up a "module review committee” that “scrutinises” the “reading lists of lecturers” in case they contain “material that is illegal or could incite violence”.

David Miller, professor of sociology at the University of Strathclyde and the convenor of Teaching About Terrorism, said “Nottingham's review policy represented a fundamental attack on academic freedom. The module review committee is a censorship committee: it can't operate as anything else. The university is acting as the police, one step removed."

A year after the "Nottingham Two" were arrested, two academics who disagreed with colleagues campaigning for academic freedom, Dr. Macdonald Daly and Dr.Sean Matthews produced a book, "Academic Freedom and the University of Nottingham", complaining that colleagues who campaigned for academic freedom after the arrests had "brought the university into disrepute, without fully considering the details in the case".

Although Hicham Yezza had been released on the terror charge, he was threatened with deportation to Algeria, and served five months of a nine month sentence because he had switched from studying to his administration job without his visa being altered. The Daly and Matthews book said the University of Nottingham ought to have checked Yezza's documents earlier which would have revealed he was in the country illegally. And the authors said university management should have kept staff better informed about the case.


These sound like two nice guys to have as colleagues.

Meanwhile, we hear that the book which started all the kefuffle is not only available on the net or from Amazon, but there is a copy now in the University of Nottingham library. Ah, but that does not mean that just anyone should be allowed to read it. Defenders of the university's action have argued that there is no case of 'academic freedom' to consider, because though Hicham Yezza was a graduate, he was but an administrator, and not an academic. That's one for those of us in humbler callings to think about.

One might have expected the University of Nottingham to be glad to forget this incident, though Rizwaan Sabir and Hicham Yezza and their families have found it harder to do so, both because of the unpleasant experience itself and subsequent harassment.

But in a sequel, Rod Thornton, a lecturer in Politics at Nottingham, has been suspended for criticising the way the University handled the affair. Thornton believes that the senior University personnel involved acted in ways that “can be classed as unfair, discriminatory, and sometimes, outright illegal”. He has called for a public investigation into the University’s actions.

Thornton, who formerly taught about terrorism as part of his politics course, is not just someone who has learned about it from books. He spent nine years in the army, serving three years in Northern Ireland in a counter-terrorism role, which included a six-month period in a police station, operating in an intelligence capacity.

In a paper prepared for the British International Studies Association (Bisa), which held its annual conference in Manchester recently, Rod Thornton accused the university of passing "erroneous evidence" to police and attempting to discredit its student.(So much for the university's duty of care for its students).

He wrote that both Sabir and Hicham Yezza, were "completely innocent" of any link to terrorism. "They were simply caught up in an extraordinary set of circumstances that might be described as laughable if the consequences had not been quite so severe.

"And, at the heart of their tribulations, there does seem to be something really rather dark; something I would never have believed existed in a modern British university and indeed, within modern British society.

"Untruth piled on untruth until a point was reached where the Home Office itself farcically came to advertise the case as 'a major Islamist plot' ... Many lessons can be learned from what happened at the University of Nottingham.

"This incident is an indication of the way in which, in the United Kingdom of today, young Muslim men can become so easily tarred with the brush of being 'terrorists'."

Sabir, now a PhD student at Strathclyde University, said: "A public inquiry is needed more than ever before into the university's actions."

Referring to the arrests in May 2008, Thornton wrote in his paper that both Sabir and the administrator, Hicham Yezza, were "completely innocent" of any link to terrorism."They were simply caught up in an extraordinary set of circumstances that might be described as laughable if the consequences had not been quite so severe.

"And, at the heart of their tribulations, there does seem to be something really rather dark; something I would never have believed existed in a modern British university and indeed, within modern British society."

Thornton writes that the al-Qaida manual which led to the arrests is now stocked in the university's library. He says the university's administration notified police but had never given any indication they had carried out "even the simplest of internet checks or ... [sought] either advice or guidance from elsewhere".

Thornton told the Guardian he had received a letter from the vice-chancellor telling him he had been suspended because of a "breakdown in working relationships with your colleagues caused by your recent article".

He said: "I'm just saddened by it. I'm criticising my own university but there's a bigger issue in terms of the university's treatment of Rizwaan Sabir. They failed miserably in their duty of care to him."

A university spokesman claimed Thornton's article was "highly defamatory" of a number of his colleagues. "The university rejects utterly the baseless accusations he makes about members of staff. We understand that Bisa has decided to remove the article from its website".

It seems to have removed it at the request of someone at Nottingham University. A leaked email exchange shows that one of Thornton's fellow academics at Nottingham claimed the paper made "clearly defamatory" allegations against individuals. In an email to colleagues, Professor Theo Farrell, Bisa's vice-chair, writes that the request gets the organisation into the "difficult territory" of ensuring academic freedoms while protecting itself from being sued for libel.

The University of Nottingham insists that academic freedom is a lynch pin of its existence.



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