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Last Updated: Friday, 20 August, 2004, 10:09 GMT 11:09 UK
My week as a terror suspect
By Duncan Walker
BBC News Online Magazine

Hundreds of people arrested under anti-terror laws since 11 September have subsequently been released without charge. One man tells how he copes with the lasting suspicion.

Early one morning last year, Riaz's life changed for good; an armed police raid on his family home marked him out as a wanted man in the UK's war on terror.

Dragged out of bed and off for questioning, it was seven days before police accepted he was not a terrorist and allowed him to return home, to a community which continues to regard him with suspicion.

While in custody Riaz, who says he still does not know why he was arrested, also became a new dad. Fatherhood aside, the 30-year-old's story is not that unusual. According to the Home Office 609 people were arrested under anti-terror legislation between 11 September and 30 June of this year; 99 were charged with such offences.

Earlier this week a further eight men were charged with conspiring to commit murder and conspiring to launch radioactive or chemical attacks. And a 19-year-old man arrested under the Terrorism Act on Thursday is still being questioned in the West Midlands.

The police and security services retain overwhelming public support in their efforts, but how do those suspected, but subsequently cleared, of terror links cope?

'Emotional blow'

Held during a series of raids last December there was little point in Riaz, who has asked for his real name to be kept secret, hoping that no one would notice.

The last thing we want to do is alienate people, because ultimately terrorism is only defeated with the help of the communities
Rob Beckley - ACPO

The south London house he shares with his wife and parents was sealed off and searched in painstaking detail. "They went over the minutiae of our lives," he says.

"I was very worried about the health of my parents. If I had been sent to prison it would have been an emotional blow."

A stay at high security Belmarsh prison in south east London had been exactly what Riaz, an occasional mosque visitor with sympathies towards causes such as Chechen independence, had expected.

"I was told they usually send you there, charge you and the case will be dropped several months down the line."

But as the days passed, he began to suspect that the police questioning him twice a day had as little idea of what he was supposed to have done as he did.

"It was a really bizarre, Kafkaesque scenario. It was not a search for the truth, it was a search for absolutely anything," he says.

Curtain twitching

After a week of questioning Riaz was released but charged with credit card fraud, allegations which were also dropped.

Police cars
Police say any major operation leads to people being arrested but not charged
But the 30-year-old says that while his family's immediate neighbours accept a mistake had been made, others still resort to curtain-twitching and gossip when he walks past.

He is also having to deal with the fact that old friends are spending less time with him as people fear guilt by association.

"People are not coming round as much. People that I have known for a long time are not seeing me anymore."

Riaz was between jobs at the time, but has since secured work in IT. He will not be telling his employers about his experience.

"They have no idea and I would not want to tell them either because it raises more questions than it answers."

'Sphere of guilt'

The problems faced by Riaz are typical of those in his position, says the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC).

Most simply keep their heads down, trying to get on with the life they had before.

Are children going to grow up and be loyal British citizens, or with animosity to the state?
Islamic Human Rights Commission
It is not just the suspicions of non-Muslim neighbours and colleagues that they have to deal with.

"When you go into a mosque it is normal to shake hands with everyone," says an IHRC spokesman.

"Now, when someone is released, people know who they are and are reluctant to shake their hands, or welcome them for fear of being drawn into their sphere of guilt by association."

The nature of the alleged crime plants it firmly in everyone's minds and many continue to believe there is no smoke without fire.

"These people have had their lives turned upside down, they have been humiliated," says the spokesman.

'Wastage'

Police point out that of those arrested under terror legislation but not prosecuted for such offences, more than 120 have been charged with other crimes, including fraud, immigration and firearms offences.

Officers in boiler suits
Authorities are preparing for a terror attack
Assistant Chief Constable Rob Beckley, the spokesman on faith issues for the Association Chief Police Officers, says any major operation leads to people being arrested and then subsequently released without charge.

He says only a tiny proportion of the UK's Muslim community has been targeted by anti-terror operations and that police are acutely aware of the need to avoid indiscriminate arrests.

"The last thing we want to do is alienate people, because ultimately terrorism is only defeated with the help of the communities."

He says that Riaz's claim that he still does not know why he was held is understandable, as the sensitive nature of anti-terrorism intelligence means police cannot always reveal why they acted.

Animosity

Such claims of police sensitivity are still to convince sections of the Muslim community though.

What, asks the IHRC spokesman, will children of people who are arrested make of it?"Are those children going to grow up and be loyal British citizens, or with animosity to the state?"

He says the media must also play its part, as it is all too often the case that high profile arrests are given extensive coverage while the release of suspects is tucked away in the back pages, if referred to at all.

Despite his experience, Riaz says he supports police in their battle against terrorism, but not those at the top of the chain.

"My anger is not directed at the police," he says. "With me personally, the police were professional and to the point. I know they were trying to take me down, but my anger is directed at the politicians."


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